Something about the sounds of metal crashing, the acidic taste of smoke, blood and screams and tattered pennants—something about war still intrigues us. Postmodern man is no less man than Renaissance man, or Viking man; and war, for good or bad, is in man's veins. It stirs us to patriotism, plummets us in hate, engenders fear, and destroys, but whenever the cause seems important we meet the call to arms with breathless anticipation.
It's said that Winston Churchill loved combat so much that during his military years he rushed to whichever country the British Empire was currently fighting in so he could get his fill. It's this attitude that has always helped to cast warfare in a more glorious and romantic light than it deserves. Robert E. Lee's ominous statement may temper the sentiment, but it contributes to it in its own way: "It is well that war is so terrible, lest we should grow too fond of it."
There is perhaps less love of war now than has existed in the past. Mechanization and facelessness has rendered it perfunctory and merely tragic, rather than noble and sad. Engaging an enemy on horseback with a sword in hand is considerably different than spraying bullets from the sliding door of a helicopter. The effect is to trivialize conflict, but also to make it easier; the death blow is harder to administer if you can see your opponent's eyes and hear his panting breaths.
Of course, in one sense this is a good thing. If you kill a man face-to-face enough times, eventually you just become hardened and have no conflict of conscience through long habit. But in modern warfare, the goal is to harden the conscience prematurely. Training methods are designed to eradicate conflict of conscience before it even arises, effectively turning fresh recruits into moral-less killing machines able to complete their lethal mission in any circumstances.
So if war is so bleak and dark, why do we have an entire section devoted to war stories? First of all, the best war stories aren't celebrations: they're anti-war stories. The best ones are also usually written by former participants, men who've seen the image of Death on the faces of their friends and enemies, men who understand what's at stake. Secondly, war has utterly changed the history and experience of mankind time after time after time, and to ignore it and its effects is unwise at best.
What better way to understand war (aside from participation) than to read stories about it? Simply reading a history book might give you facts, but it won't help you experience combat or its consequences. Only a story can do that, because it offers personal details, the inconsequential elements that make our experience so completely human. Many of those details are grisly, many of them are horrific, some are morally offensive; but if we never encounter them, our ideas about war will be infantile and uninformed.
We encourage you not to raise your boys exclusively on war stories. Sure, war often serves as a way to illuminate bravery, loyalty, honesty, and courage, but other stories do that as well, and war isn't a thing to be desired. It isn't romantic, and it isn't glorious. But we'd also suggest you have them read some war stories, too: there's an inherent desire in all of us for conflict, and the only way to quell that desire is to temper it with the truth.
Our collection includes both classics and newer stories. Among the latter, The Things They Carried is one of the best; Tim O'Brien's semi-fictional account of the Vietnam conflict is pure poetry, pure thoughtfulness, and pure humanity. His approach is the best kind, neither sentimental nor angry, but simply honest in its depiction of men fighting, and of men waiting to fight. In the end, this is all a good war story is, and all it can hope to be.
Review by C. Hollis Crossman
C. Hollis Crossman used to be a child. Now he is a husband and father, teaches adult Sunday school in his Presbyterian congregation, and likes weird stuff. He might be a mythical creature, but he's definitely not a centaur. Read more of his reviews here.
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