Booking through Thursday asks: It is November 11th, known here in the U.S. as Veteran’s Day, formerly Armistice Day to remember the end of WWI but expanded to honor all veterans who have fought for their country, so …do you read war stories? Fictional ones? Histories?
Being male in the United States, I am expected to be interested in war, and so I can easily answer ‘yes’ to both. The first history books I read outside the classroom were military histories of the world wars and the American Civil War: Albert Marrin’s The Airman’s War remains my favorite book from this period, and it is the reason why every history professor I sit under at my university will at some point read a paper on aerial warfare in the Great War. Additionally, for all of high school and junior college, ‘historical fiction’ meant ‘military fiction’, chiefly Michael and Jeff Shaara’s novels set during the major American wars.
As I grew older, I developed more of an interest in cultural, political, and social history than military matters. I wanted to understand how and why societies changed through time, being particularly fascinated by the growth of modern cities during the industrial period. I began to see war as a consequence of other parts of history, or as a means to effect economic or other gains. Consequently I grew cynical about war, disinterested in reading about it as anything other than a pestilence and hesitant to read fiction that glorified or sanctioned it.
My studies of the Great War in particular moved me toward pacifism, and while I grudgingly accept the idea of self-defense, I believe violence deforms people and society. I still read military history, but now I read soldiers’ accounts, for I want to understand what their lives are like: I want to know what motivates them, particularly to understand why they would surrender any part of themselves to the state. Though I tend to read ‘around’ military or combat sections in historical novels, I still read some novels that are expressly about combat — typically because the setting of the book is fascinating. This year, for instance, I’ve read the Hornblower books set during the Napoleonic Wars and am apparently starting in on Bernard Cornwell’s medieval fiction.
And for all my moralizing against war, I cannot deny a certain fascination with combat. Perhaps it’s my primal instincts surfacing — those instincts which feel somewhat out of place in a civilized world, and can appreciate the ‘struggle for existence’ that war seems to emulate. Unfortunately for those instincts, they are out of place in modern warfare as well — for if reading the memoirs of soldiers from the two world wars has taught me anything, it is that defeat and victory in war for the common soldier have more to do with luck than skill.
- The Airman’s War, Albert Marrin
- Once an Eagle, Anton Myrer
- With the Old Breed, Eugene Sledge
- All Quiet on the Western Front, Erich Maria Remarque
- Homage to Catalonia, George Orwell
- Marine Combat Correspondent, Samuel E. Stavisky
- The Influence of Airpower Upon History, Walter J. Boyne
- The Killer Angels, Michael Shaara.