Stories are Everything: A PJ Harvey-Inspired Reading List

PJ Harvey performs at Alexandra Palace, London. Photo by joeri-c via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 2.0)

I listened to PJ Harvey’s 2011 album Let England Shake obsessively while researching people who were sickened or died as a result of their work building nuclear weapons. The album is both simple folk storytelling, and a timeless work about war in the grand tradition of Goya or Hemingway; like the best writers, she turns discrete stories into a broader lens through which to view the world. The music helped me grapple with what each data point of suffering and sacrifice meant, the contradictions in our national remembrance of the cold war, and the forces still shaping that memory.

I find myself thinking about Let England Shake when I read stories of violence and the bloody foundations of national identity. Here are my favorite examples, track by track, of writing that echoes Harvey’s timeless themes:

1. How Quickly We Forget

Song: Let England Shake
Story:What Have We Learned, If Anything?” (Tony Judt, 2008, New York Review of Books)

“We wear the last century rather lightly.” Our collective memory of the 20th century’s many wars, Judt argues, is limited to hagiographies of wartime heroes and selective commemoration of suffering. He fears lessons that should have been learned many times over from a exceptionally bloody century are being rapidly, collectively forgotten.

The lyrics of Let England Shake’s title track are an extended allusion to a 19th century ballad, in which Thomas Osborne Davis warned that the complacent English had forgotten about Ireland’s dormant nationalism. Harvey gives her melodic warning a whimsical musical treatment that feels inappropriate — an indictment of the listener for not taking such admonitions seriously.

To Harvey and Judt, wars are more alike than they are different, and our failure to remember their lessons has reached the point of tragic absurdity.

2. We’re All Exceptional To Ourselves

Song: The Last Living Rose
Story: Does America Deserve Malala?” (Ayesha Siddiqi, 2015, Vice)

Crafting a positive national narrative requires a fair amount of omission. “The Last Living Rose,” a ditty of national pride, begins with offhand xenophobia and darkens from there. “Goddamn Europeans,” Harvey sings, without context or elaboration. The “beautiful England” she describes is pocked with graveyards and has fallen on hard times. War is in the background, but engaging with it in any depth might shatter the fragile illusion patriotism requires.

America’s embrace of Malala was swift and reflexive — after all, she’s an extraordinarily brave and kind human being who stands for education and equality, all qualities we like to see in ourselves. But Ayesha Siddiqi asks Americans to consider whether we really know enough about Malala’s story to make her a part of ours.

3. Do We Really Want to Know the Cost?

Song: The Glorious Land
Story:Rethinking the Cost of War” (Mike Hixenbaugh and Charles Ornstein, 2016, The Virginian-Pilot and ProPublica)

When PJ Harvey performs “The Glorious Land” live, the end of the song becomes an unsettling call-and-response. “What is the glorious fruit of our land?” she asks. “Its fruit is deformed children,” replies the crowd.

The Virginian-Pilot and ProPublica’s stunning, 18-month investigative series on Agent Orange began when Pilot photographer Stephen Katz was contacted by his estranged father, who told him for the first time about his exposure to the herbicide in Vietnam. Katz wondered if Agent Orange was responsible for his own health problems, in addition to his father’s. He soon learned that many Vietnam vets shared the same worry about their children. Lead reporters Mike Hixenbaugh and Charles Ornstein penned an essay about what their stories mean in aggregate. The U.S. government has resisted knowing the true intergenerational impact of its wars, they conclude, because the political and financial costs of knowing are too great.

4. Rationalizing the Irrational

Song: The Words that Maketh Murder
Story:60 Words And A War Without End: The Untold Story Of The Most Dangerous Sentence In U.S. History” (Gregory Johnsen, 2014, BuzzFeed)

The high-minded diplomacy, rules, and authorizations that precede a war seem feckless and abstract to those who fight it. “The Words that Maketh Murder” takes on war’s visceral realities. Soldiers experience shell shock as the dead fall “like lumps of meat.” At the song’s end, she sarcastically borrows from “Summertime Blues,” asking “What if I take my problem to the United Nations?”

Gregory Johnsen tells the story of the U.S.’s 2001 Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF), passed in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. Only one lawmaker in Congress voted against it. This vague, 60-word measure underpins 16 years’ worth of drone strikes, two invasions, a global detention and torture regime, and special forces operations in over 100 countries.

On May 5th, 2017, Navy Seal Kyle Milliken was killed during a raid in Somalia authorized under the AUMF. If you’re wondering what Somalia has to do with 9/11, perhaps you should take your problem to the United Nations.

5. How Do You Make the Horror Real?

Song: “All and Everyone
Essay: If America Were Iraq What Would It  Be” (Juan Cole, 2004, self published)

What’s the best way to convey the horror and magnitude of WWI’s Gallipoli campaign? “500,000 slain soldiers”? 85 soldiers per hour, over 8 months?

Making the horrors of war seem less abstract is a perpetual, frustrating challenge for those who report on it, photograph it, or make art about it. Public intellectual Juan Cole was exasperated by the rhetoric he heard about Iraq’s progress in 2004, and took a unique approach to making the realities on the ground seem more real: he wrote about them as though they were taking place in the United States.

PJ Harvey doesn’t have any gimmicks on “All and Everyone,” but the listener feels her sense of urgency in trying to convey just how nightmarish Gallipoli was. Death was constant and everywhere, and Harvey will say this in as many ways as she needs to for you to understand.

6. Man vs. Man vs. Nature

Song: On Battleship Hill
Story:The Coldest War” (Kevin Fedarko, 2003, Outside)

For decades, India and Pakistan have cycled through skirmishes and ceasefires over the disputed Siachen Glacier, the highest and coldest battlefield in the world. In his 2002 visit, Kevin Fedarko was struck by both the beauty of the Himalayan mountains and the futility of the conflict. More soldiers were killed by the extreme altitude, avalanches, and cold than bullets — and thousands of square miles of ice and 20,000 feet of altitude kept the world buffered from the misery.

PJ Harvey wrote “On Battleship Hill” after a visit to the Sari Bair mountain range, where British Empire troops and Ottoman soldiers once tried to break a stalemate in the valleys by taking the fight to higher, more dangerous ground. Neither side could hold the rugged terrain for long, and hundreds died. “Cruel nature has won again,” Harvey sings.

In 2012 — ten years after Fedarko’s visit — an avalanche hit a Pakistani military base on Siachen, burying 129 soldiers and sparking brief but futile talks of withdrawal. In 2016, nature took the lives of 17 more Indian soldiers. The mountains defeat soldiers’ bodies, and win a second victory over the world’s memory.

7. Writing (and Editing) History

Song:England
Story: “Making the Memorial” (Maya Lin, 2000, New York Review of Books)

“England” is Harvey’s love song to her country, warts and all. Grappling with its history leaves a bitter taste, but her ode makes the case that its national narrative should be honest about the sacrifice the country is built on.

When America was deciding how to memorialize the Vietnam War, much of the angst around crafting a national story was foisted on Maya Lin, the winner of a competition to design a memorial on the National Mall. Criticism of her non-traditional, wound-inspired monument was harsh, and her race, age, and gender were all used against her. Her desire to make an apolitical shrine focused on individual lives lost was politicized by those who wanted to establish a positive historical reading of the conflict.

The compromise of adding a bronze statue off to one side “memorializes the conflict in the building of the piece,” Lin remarks. The Vietnam War Memorial has become a monument not only to a war but also to the forces that shape a country’s shared memory.

8. War Kills the Young, and Youth

Song: In the Dark Places
Essay: The faceless men” (Allan Little, 2014, BBC)

“In the Dark Places” is about the continual pull young men — who do most of the fighting and dying in any war — feel to enlist in the military.

Christopher Nevinson was a hawkish young painter who traveled to the front during WWI to produce propaganda. His employers were displeased, however, when his style switched from modernist glorification of the war to haunting paintings of dead servicemen. Allan Little compares Nevinson’s change of tone with his own experiences as a war correspondent, during which he often encountered reminders of “the tenderness of youth” in brutal environments — from a distance, American forces gathered in Kuwait to invade Iraq looked like a formidable war machine. When Little encountered the soldiers up close, most just wanted to borrow his satellite phone to call their mothers.

9. Rending Our Strongest Bonds

Song: Bitter Branches
Story: War in Translation: Giving Voice to the Women of Syria” (Lina Mounzer, 2016, LitHub)

“Bitter Branches” is full of root and tree imagery — our ties to family and community. War rips its participants from those roots.

Lina Mounzer writes about a different sort of root threatened by war: language. From her home in Beirut, Mounzer translates the firsthand accounts of Syrian women fleeing civil war, so that they can be shared with the world. The act of translating is important but draining, as she listens to so many accounts of suffering and fears that meaning in the roots of the original language will be lost.

10. War’s Hidden Traumas

Song: Hanging in the Wire
Story: Death and After in Iraq” (Jess Goodell, 2011, NPR)

Harvey tells us about Walker, lost in no-man’s land; she first describes the horror he witnessed happening to someone else, then the same horror as it happens to Walter. The line between witness and participant is blurred. He sounds like he is alone.

Jess Goodell worked in a morgue during the Iraq war. From home, our view of death in Iraq was sanitized, with the Pentagon banning photographs of soldiers’ coffins. Goodell had to diagram their injuries and root through their pockets. War produces innumerable unique traumas for soldiers and bystanders alike, many of which are solitary and hidden from view.

11. War Takes More Than Lives

Song: Written on the Forehead
Story:In Baghdad Ruins, Remains of a Cultural Bridge” (Anthony Shadid, 2010, The New York Times)

When working on Let England Shake, Harvey read Anthony Shadid’s book Night Draws Near, about the lives of Iraqis under American occupation. On “Written on the Forehead,” she describes a culturally vibrant, unnamed Middle Eastern city on the cusp of war, sonically demonstrating the city’s connectedness by infusing a sample of Niney the Observer’s 1970 reggae hit “Blood and Fire.”

Years after the publication of “Night Draws Near,” Anthony Shadid filed a story about a bombing that destroyed a house in Baghdad. Few noticed or attached any significance to this particular bombing, the sort of which had become routine. The house had belonged to a prominent novelist and was filled with treasures of literature and art from the Arab world and beyond. To Shadid, blood and fire had destroyed Baghdad’s global, cosmopolitan ideal along with its people.

12. A Tragic Brotherhood

Song: The Colour of the Earth
Story:One Degree of Separation in the Forever War” (Brian Castner, 2015, Motherboard)

PJ Harvey ends Let England Shake with a simple account of a soldier losing a dear friend. British soldiers who signed up together were allowed to fight together in the Great War. While effective as a recruiting tactic, it decimated the population of many towns, concentrating the war’s tragedies. Harvey’s soldier on “The Colour of the Earth” still mourns his inability to save his friend, 20 years later.

Brian Castner’s piece is a moving exploration of the close connection felt by the one percent of the American population fighting our current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. In a volunteer army fighting the longest wars in our history, the desire to protect friends is a potent factor in the decision to reenlist. But Castner shows that, much like in WWI, when camaraderie is amplified, so is loss.