For as long as there have been wars — which in human history is forever — there have been stories about war.
They stretch back to Homer’s riveting epic songs of the battlefield — the “Iliad” — and of returning home from it — the “Odyssey.” They come forward in truly sensitive films like Richard Linklater’s “Last Flag Flying” and Ricardo Ainslie’s “The Mark of War,” and wide-ranging books like Larry Tritle’s and Jason Warren’s “The Many Faces of War,” officially being released this Veterans Day.
We should approach Veterans Day with reverence, a sense of irony and even bewilderment. After all, on the original Armistice Day, Nov. 11, 1918, civilized Europeans, Americans and Turks decided that 21 million casualties was enough.
This Veterans Day, we should pay attention to the stories old and young warriors tell us about their time in service and try to figure out what points their stories are making, what the service we always thank them for was, and what purpose it served.
We will find as one common takeaway that many service members and veterans tell stories to try to figure out themselves what it all meant and means. Why did so many men and women suffer and die? Why did some make it home and so many others did not? Why do they still think about, in some cases persistently, the things they did and the things that were done to them and their friends, and even their once-upon-a-time enemies?
There are so many stories of war that there is a whole scholarly and popular industry of studies of these stories. I have taught honors and graduate courses about war stories for more than 25 years. They are an inexhaustible well.
One great study is by Samuel Hynes, “The Soldiers’ Tale” (1997). Hynes flew in combat as a Marine pilot at Okinawa, the last of the truly hellish fighting by American troops in amphibious landings during World War II. For 20 months, island by island across the Pacific, dug-in Japanese soldiers swore to die fighting and did. The fighting at Okinawa went on for 80 days, April through June 1945. It exceeded predictions by military planners that it would be “horrendous — worse than Iwo Jima.”
If you want good war stories, a place to start is with Eugene Sledge’s “With the Old Breed: At Peleliu and Okinawa.” Sledge was there in the fighting, and he attests that it was an “environment so degrading I believed we had been flung into hell’s own cesspool.” More than 150,000 casualties, American and Japanese, on a small island will produce the effect described by a U.S. Marine sergeant using Sledge’s metaphor, “You could smell the front long before you saw it; it was one vast cesspool.”
Hynes says that his book really began at Okinawa, when “I saw that war was not what I had expected.”
The stories veterans of war tell have no magic. Shakespeare scholar Alvin Kernan, who served as a bombardier in the Pacific in World War II and wrote his memoir, told it like it is when critiquing Hynes’ book in 1997: “They always say there won’t be another war, but there always is.”
We seem now to have reached the point with what war correspondent Dexter Filkins calls our “forever war” on terror, where we don’t even pretend there won’t be another war.
So, we had better read and listen to and watch and hear what those who fight in our name are telling us, unromantically, removing any stars still left in our eyes, or never placing them there to begin with.
Here is one story from war to ponder on Veterans Day:
During World War I, 23,000 Australian soldiers died horribly during the Battle of the Somme. One history states that “some intelligent men developed a bitter conviction that they were being uselessly sacrificed.”
One of them even believed in magic: “For Christ’s sake,” he wrote, “write a book on the life of an infantryman and by doing so you will quickly prevent these shocking tragedies.”
Many, many such books were published in the past century. Today?
Tom Palaima is the Armstrong Centennial Professor of Classics at the University of Texas at Austin and academic adviser to the veterans-run NEH-Aquila Theatre Project “The Warrior Chorus,” warriorchorus.org/blog/.