Absolutely nothin’, say it again… So why am I so fascinated by war? Not sure, really, but it is the history I tend to read more than any other. Dan Brown in the Da Vinci code had a character state that history is written by the winners, but I don’t think this is always true. In the olden days, when the victors basically wiped out the losers, Brown’s contention is substantially true, but in the last few centuries, not so much so… Nowadays, war history is written by people on all sides, or not on any side, or somewhere in between. Look up the Battle of the Bulge, and you can find accounts by Americans, English, French, Belgians, and Germans, to name a few: Read them all and you have a pretty good idea of what really happened.
Of course some of the most fundamental flaws that can impact the writing of history are the unknown biases and practices and skills of the historian/author: Do they have an agenda they’re forwarding and using the book as a platform for such? Are they lazy, or presumptive? Is their first-hand research really that? How accurate and thorough is the job they’ve done? Sometimes we know and sometimes we don’t…
This brings me to one of the most powerful books of history I’ve read in a long time, and one that largely bypasses those concerns. It’s called War Letters, and it was written by Andrew Carroll. War Letters is just that; letters from people in and around American wars, from Revolutionary to Desert Storm. Not all are from soldiers. Some come from peace activists and conscientious objectors, others from politicians and civilians – But most are from soldiers, and needless to say, not all of them survived. The content is poignant, shocking, sad, joyous, funny, thought provoking, and never dull. Writers run the gamut from semi-illiterate to polished, educated to not, and come from all classes and races. Their words reflect the pride, fear, hate, disgust, wonder, doubt, love, and anguish that war brings: Their sights are amazing, the insights are stunning, the reflections terrifying and fascinating. I’ve not read anything like it before.
It is surprising, or perhaps not, that people seem to have changed very little over 200+ years of history. Their fears and desires remain pretty much the same, although their words and surroundings change somewhat. A young soldier from the Revolution was no less scared than one crossing the Iraqi desert. The technology of war changed, but the combatants really didn’t notice that, per se – They noticed their own fears and concerns, and those of their buddies. And one thing certainly remained the same throughout – The group, be it platoon, regiment, flight crew, or artillery company – The group is key. Whether the people beside you came from your neck of the woods, level of education, or strata of society meant nothing – It really didn’t matter if you liked them or not – You trusted them, and they you, because without that, you wouldn’t survive.
War in and of itself reflects the worst of human society; within war, actions may and have reflected the best of humankind: War Letters is all that and more.