This is an excerpt of a longer online conversation. The first excerpt is here. To read the whole thing, click on the links at the end.
To give Band of Brothers credit, it does present instances of American soldiers killing prisoners. And yet even there the moralizing is heavy-handed. There is always the same tendency to present everything in black or white, rather than in the shades of gray in which war is fought.
A primary principle with me—and this is true in every history book I’ve written—is to avoid value judgments about my subject. This is especially important with something like the First World War. In a previous note you mentioned Paul Fussell. I actually don’t care for The Great War and Modern Memory, because I think Fussell falls victim to just that tendency to moralize. It seems to me that he takes his own feelings as a veteran (he fought in WWII), finds a few memoirists who seem to agree with him (Robert Graves, Siegfried Sassoon, Edmund Blunden), and then extrapolates from there to generalize about what all soldiers supposedly felt.
From reading Fussell, one gets the impression that all soldiers (or at least the ones worth listening to) entered the war with naive ideals that were shattered by the reality of modern warfare, and returned home horrified and disillusioned with God, King, and Country. Not so. In fact, there were as many different reactions to the war as there were men who fought it—and it is worth remembering that many of the men who played leading roles in the beginning of World War II, like Hitler and Mussolini, were veterans of World War I.
By imposing on the subject our own views of what war is supposed to mean, we run the risk of minimizing or ignoring altogether the accounts of veterans whose experiences don’t fit with our vision. Thus most Americans prefer to ignore World War I altogether, because it doesn’t jibe with their simplistic notion of what war is about; while Fussell, on the other end of the spectrum, ignores the accounts of soldiers who felt ambiguous about the war or even celebrated it.
It’s for that reason that I am reluctant to generalize about E. B. Sledge’s statement. I have no doubt that the idea of war as insanity was true for him, as it is for many other veterans. And yet, many veterans have said that war allowed them to see things as they truly are, with a preternatural clarity; and others have said that it was only in war that they felt truly alive. Who is to say which veteran is right? Certainly not me.
Not having experienced the First World War, or combat in any form, I think it would be the height of arrogance for me to impose my views on my subject, or to decide which veterans’ accounts capture the true meaning of war. Instead I try to approach each account with respect, allowing the veterans to tell the story themselves. That’s the answer, also, to your question on how I depict battle. Rather than pretend I was there—to paint a portrait, so to speak, of something I did not see or experience—I try to tell it in as raw a form as possible, as from the mouths of the soldiers themselves. No one will ever accuse me of being a storyteller like David McCullough or a Stephen Ambrose, but that is at least in part (aside from their much greater talent as writers!) due to my reluctance to move beyond what I could get from the sources.
You have gently pointed out, I think, that in saying I would “honor the sacrifices of our ancestors,” I have made just the sort of moralizing statement I claim to decry. There is, true, a moral element to my approach. It is this: we have a responsibility to listen to what our ancestors experienced, with humility and respect, and to tell their tale and keep it alive for future generations.
PREVIOUSLY: To Conquer Hell: A Conversation (Intro); Part 1; Part 2; Part 3; Part 4; Part 5
IMAGE: American Doughboys, ca. 1919