I think that a lot of people get into military history because of their childhood. Fond memories of plastic army soldiers, and jingoistic, watered down tales of derring-do. I know I certainly was drawn to it for the glory when I was a little kid. War was running around the woods with a stick going “bang”, and the most contentious issues were arguments about who got who. And many people I don’t believe move beyond that.
Military history, for many, still remains a mostly clean affair, with the good ol’GI-citizen soldier going and liberating Europe from the clutches of Nazism. We simply forget the abject horrors of war. The dying cries of “mother” or simply “water”. The smell of shit that permeates a battlefield. Widows, orphans, and parents burying their spouses, parents, or sons. And that, of course, is only in wars that are fought with close attention to the rules.
I was listening to an interview given by Shelby Foote, the author of several Civil War books, and she said something that struck me as so perfect:
“There is a general belief that war books promote a love of war, and that is true about bad war books, but every serious book about a battle or about a war, if it’s serious, is bound to be anti-war. […] Because the truth is, it’s more bloody than it is glorious, and the suffering is a far bigger part of it than the patriotism and the glory, and that will come across with an honest writer. Cheap literature hurts everybody, but decent, honest literature will always carry this anti-war message, it’s bound to be there. No matter how patriotic a man may sound, underlying it, if he has a good eye, everybody is going to see through the phony patriotism and the ephemeral glory, and to the real suffering of it and especially the absurdity of it.”
And I couldn’t agree more. War is absurd, and I now find great distaste in books that don’t present that side of the conflict alongside. It is a disservice to everyone to separate the good parts of war from the bad.
I don’t believe people are either good or bad, and studying war, really, has shown me that anyone is capable of reaching both extremes. So what I can say about how studying conflict has affected my outlook on human nature is that it has sobered it. Sure, I still enjoy reading an uplifting story about some brave soldier saving his buddies, but you can’t shake the images of the terrible human cost.
When I was 8 years old, my uncle was driving me and my cousins around; and he began telling me about our family’s upcoming summer vacation. We were going to Hawaii in a few months, and he was telling us what to expect: the culture, the natural beauty, and the rich history of the islands.
His excitement began to build, and finally he could barely contain himself when he said “you know, your grandmother is even planning a special trip, so we can take you kids to go see Pearl Harbor.” He looked at me, and I was expressionless; I had absolutely no idea what Pearl Harbor even was. He was shocked.
The next night after dinner, I went to Blockbuster (ya’ll remember those???) and rented “Tora Tora Tora” and stayed up past my bedtime so I could see what it was all about.
I was hooked.
By the time we visited Pearl Harbor that summer, I was all over it. I knew names, dates, times of attack, casualty statistics, battleship/aircraft silhouettes, etc. I remember looking at a 3-D topographical map of Oahu, and outlining the different flight paths of the first and seconds attack waves.
There was an older woman who was also standing on the opposite side of the table, and after finishing my explanation, she looked at my grandmother and said “ma’am, your granddaughter is absolutely correct.”
I may have grown up in a household that didn’t really understand my love for History, but at least I was given every opportunity to experience it firsthand.