So said Oliver Wendell Holmes after his time in the Civil War. Holmes fought with the Massachusetts militia before he became a justice of the Supreme Court. His words ring true in my ears today–not because I am fighting, but because I am reading Stephen Ambrose’s Citizen Soldiers, and thus feel as if I am fighting.
I am a military history devotee. I have not yet read a book that more vividly communicates the experience of war. Ambrose ran into some justified trouble regarding plagiarism in his career, but that did not stop him from telling magnificent, true-to-life history. If you have not yet read his Citizen Soldiers, and you are a military history aficionado, you are cheating yourself. Ambrose chronicles the efforts of the American battle commanders–the everyday soldier and his officers–to defeat the Germans from the time of D-Day’s end until the war’s conclusion. The book is mesmerizing for its attention to detail, its outlay of the big picture, and its relentless citation of the primary sources–namely, American and German soldiers. In reading this book, I must keep reminding myself that the war is not still going on at this moment, and that I am not in it.
One of the primary realizations I’ve had in reading Ambrose’s text is just how much goes wrong in wartime. Even the most skilled and conscientious general or commanding officer makes mistakes, and the consequences are always–not often–brutal. If I make a mistake at my job, some time is lost, and some frustration is incurred. If a general–say, Eisenhower–makes a mistake, 2,000 men lose their lives, millions of dollars are lost, and whole communities dry up. Though they got so many things right, the US Army made countless mistakes, and life after life was lost as a result. It is wrenching to read about, and must have been awful to take. Another engrossing matter is the idea of the Geneva Conventions, the codes that govern the conduct of war and that bind all nations who sign them. What an interesting concept, that even in war, even when men set out to do nothing but slaughter one another, they shake hands first, and agree on how they will do so. There is something in such conduct that fascinates me. You and I can be gentleman in this moment, agreeing that we will not torture POWs or kills medics. Then, in the next instant, we will shoot at one another, and try to extinguish one another. I suppose that this illuminates the paradoxical nature of our fallen world–though terribly corrupted, grace still exists here, even if it exists in a shape both odd and mystifying.
War is awful stuff. It is fascinating to read about, it sometimes inspires the best in men, and it is instructive for all of us, but it is, at the end of the day, horrific. You and I may not experience it firsthand, but even in reading books such as Citizen Soldiers, we come away changed, aware of a whole side of the world we had lightly imagined but never understood. Though we have not fought or killed, we know something of war–and we realize that though we use words and photographs, the true nature of battle will remain incommunicable until the day when all wars cease.