O my good lord, why are you thus alone?
For what offense have I this fortnight been
A banished woman from my Harry’s bed?
Tell me, sweet lord, what is’t that takes from thee
Thy stomach, pleasure, and thy golden sleep?
Why dost thou bend thine eyes upon the earth,
And start so often when thou sit’st alone?
Why hast thou lost the fresh blood in thy cheeks
And given my treasures and my rights of thee
To thick-eyed musings and cursed melancholy?
In thy faint slumbers I by thee have watched,
And heard thee murmur tales of iron wars,
Speak terms of manage to thy bounding steed,
Cry “Courage! To the field!” And thou hast talked
Of sallies and retires, of trenches, tents,
Of palisadoes, frontiers, parapets,
Of basilisks, of cannon, culverin,
Of prisoners’ ransom, and of soldiers slain,
And all the currents of a heady fight.
Thy spirit within thee hath been so at war,
And thus hath so bestirred thee in thy sleep,
That beads of sweat have stood upon thy brow
Like bubbles in a late disturbèd stream,
And in thy face strange motions have appeared,
Such as we see when men restrain their breath
On some great sudden hest. O, what portents are these?
So puzzles Lady Percy of her husband Henry aka “Hotspur”, upon his return from battle. This is the trauma of war, clearly delineated in the late 16th century by Shakespeare. How could Hotspur explain? What kind of experience replays itself in sweat and dreams, can steal your appetite and tame your lust? Considering that Shakespeare’s description sounds so like our modern idea of post traumatic stress disorder, it seems obvious that there are a few threads that connect all who have seen combat. Here are some of the best memoirs, studies and fictions which examine a soldier’s experience of war.
The Face of Battle by John Keegan – This British writer was maybe the greatest military historian of the past few decades, and this book more or less put him on the map. He covers the soldier’s experience – that is, ground level, moment to moment – in three historical battles: Agincourt (the one from Henry V, with knights and such), Waterloo and the Somme (in World War I). It’s so good.
Civil War Stories by Ambrose Bierce – Besides being an American literary icon, Bierce was a combat vet of the Civil War – the only major writer to actually see action. He marched with Sherman and was at many major battles, including Shiloh and Chickamauga. So, this is a collection of well-informed short stories – some you undoubtedly have read – with authentic detail and hard-earned perspective.
Goodbye to All That by Robert Graves – The First World War was different from previous wars in its special level of disconnect between decision-making at the top level and frontline reality at the bottom level. No one suffered from this disconnect like the men in the trenches. (For a survey of nearly every aspect of this war thru (mostly) fiction, check out our review of No Man’s Land.) This is Graves’ (I, Claudius) bitter autobio of before, during and after the war.
Helmet for My Pillow: From Parris Island to the Pacific from Robert Leckie – Originally published in the late 50s, this is Leckie’s experience as a Marine in WWII, from his training in South Carolina to the Pacific theater. Helmet for My Pillow will probably play into every stereotyped image of the “Old breed” of island-hopping Marines – fighting hard, playing hard – but it’s the real deal. It was part of the basis for the Hanks/Spielberg series The Pacific.
Ernie’s War: The Best of Ernie Pyle’s World War II Dispatches – David Nichols starts this collection with his own biographical essay of the standard-setting chronicler of the American GI – the legendary, Pulitzer-winning Ernie Pyle, who was himself killed in combat. The dispatches, in chronological order, are selections of Pyle’s first-hand accounts of servicemen and their daily lives during the war. He was astoundingly prolific and a champion of the man on the ground — even being instrumental in convincing the government to provide combat pay for the men at the front lines.
Command Missions: A Personal Story, the memoirs of General Lucian King Truscott, Jr. – Does it seem unfair to hear some fancy-pants WWII general’s POV on the subject? Well, LKT,jr was no fancy-pants. He was a soldier’s soldier, beloved by his men, effective as hell and uninterested in the spotlight. Patton’s War As I Knew It could go in this spot, but that guy gets enough attention. The thing about Lucian K is that he’s gonna give you the straight story, more so than most top brass. And I’m pretty sure he never slapped a soldier for having PTSD.
The Forgotten Soldier by Guy Sajer – This is Sajer’s personal account, as a German soldier. Sajer was actually French – an unwilling conscript in the Wermacht. The book is not about the broader scope of the war or the Holocaust or any of the big themes we usually connect with WWII. It is just one soldier’s experience fighting in Russia. A few critics have nitpicked at the book’s authenticity, but it is widely considered a realistic view of the brutality of the front lines.
On Killing by David Grossman – This well-known study by psychologist Grossman (also an Army officer and Ranger) unveiled that the majority of combat soldiers in WWII would not fire on the enemy. Since then, training has been developed to increase the willingness of soldiers to kill. In other words, contrary to what we might think from looking at world history, humans seem naturally reluctant to kill. What has led to more “effective” soldiering has come at a very high cost, as more soldiers return home with severe psychological wounds.
The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien – These are short stories – fiction, but based on O’Brien’s experiences as a soldier in Vietnam. The related stories cover a platoon’s tour of duty, with insight into each character via the “things” that they carried through the war, whether tangible, like a photo, or intangible, like guilt. Every war produces great literature; this follows in that tradition.
What It Is Like to Go to War by Karl Marlantes – This Marine veteran of Vietnam addresses some of the ideas in On Killing, ie how the shifting morality of war (eg having to perform the unnatural act of killing) effects the soldier. What is great about this book is that Marlantes does not only say “Oh, here’s what happened to me and my guys – but too bad, too late now”, but instead advocates for better mental, emotional and spiritual preparation for young people before heading into combat. You might also look at his novel of the Vietnam war, Matterhorn.
War by Sebastian Junger – From the author of The Perfect Storm comes this first hand account of the 15-month deployment of an airborne platoon in the Korengal Valley of Afghanistan. He wrestles with the contradictory experience of war: terror, boredom and extreme deprivation mixed with inimitable excitement, camaraderie and courage. You might also check out Junger’s documentary Restrepo.
Thank You For Your Service from David Finkel – Paired with his first book The Good Soldier, you can follow the 2nd Battalion, 16th Infantry Regiment on deployment in Iraq and then as they adjust to civilian life. Unlike some writers, Finkel stays in the background, and let’s the soldiers take center stage, so this is pretty unfiltered. A film is due later this year.
Of course, all the reading in the world is still just second-hand knowledge. Only a soldier really knows.