I read a lot of history because I’m as interested in the past as I am in the future, and history tells me as much about one as about the other. I especially like first–person accounts of events, of history written by someone who was actually a part of it, even if the story is told as a novel.
Recently I picked up a couple of books written by a well-known (at the time) journalist, later an officer on General Pershing’s staff in France. The first book describes his visit to France during the second year of the war. The other is from his perspective as the public information officer for the American Expeditionary Forces, as our WW I effort was known. In reading about the preparation for battle, the battles themselves, and the effect of war on not just the soldiers but on the civilians in a country at war, I began to think about how and why men, especially, volunteer to become warriors.
When I read something authentic, real and true, I often stop, step back and try to put myself into the story. How would I respond to the circumstances and situations described by the author? Where would I be if I were part of not just the story, but the time and place, as well? I’m no longer a young man, not even a middle-aged man so that, I realize, changes my perspective about war and warfighters.
When I was very young, and living through what we called World War II, my heros were the young men stationed at the Army Air Corps replacement depot that had been built in our town. Some were men who had flown in combat, others were still waiting to be sent overseas. More than a few were permanently stationed at the base because their skills, though highly important to the war, were not combat skills, and they could not be spared. Playing with the other pre-teen kids in the neighborhood, some of whom had fathers overseas (my own had been a year too young for WW I, and several years and two kids too old for WW II), we more often played at soldiering than old games like Cowboys and Indians or Cops and Robbers. We imagined ourselves dedicated fighters, and hoped that if our time came, we would be in the thick of it, on the ground or in the air or afloat, shooting our way to our country’s safety, throwing grenades, firing canon, shooting other planes out of the sky. We would be in the thick of it, and always survive.
We were finished in Korea by the time I was draft age, but I did manage to get to the next one, in Viet Nam. By then I was a professional filmmaker, and that is what I did there. Though I was issued a sidearm I was seldom at risk, given the places I was filming or sending my crews to film. I was in my 30s by then, and saw war through a different lens, as it were.
Now, when reading about our soldiers and sailors, airmen and marines, I find myself wondering, if I had been in whatever war the book is about, what kind of assignment I would want; what has the least risk, the highest survival rate? That is where I would want to be, to have the greatest chance of coming back to the life I would have left to go to war.
How different from childhood, from youth, when I would have wanted to be in the army, in the infantry, maybe airborne, but not a pilot or a sailor. But then I didn’t understand death. In fact, I didn’t understand life. I’m still learning about both, but I’m at least advanced enough to know which I value most.
I think the world would be different if the people responsible for declaring war then had to do the fighting.