First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times, Greensboro, NC
The War Book of the Year
How can we know what war is, we who have never served in one, who have never been under a barrage of mortar shells or heard bullets whizzing overhead?
I never went to war. By the time I reached draft age it was 1969, and instead of college deferments we had a lottery. My number was well above the cutoff. I could not be drafted.
And it never crossed my mind to volunteer.
As a child I had once dreamed of being a great military leader. Having read Bruce Catton's brutally accurate three-volume "Army of the Potomac," I had no romantic delusions about the nature of war. But I knew that war mattered, that it was the supreme test of a man's fibre. I fancied that if the time came, I would have the courage and wit to do well.
Then I found out about basic training. Running obstacle courses. Climbing ropes. Doing pushups and situps, dozens, hundreds at a time.
I was not even marginally physically fit. I got winded running 300 yards in P.E. I could not get two inches up a rope, let alone 20 feet. My idea of exercise was to carry a book in each hand.
Even if I somehow managed to get through basic training, I knew I would have the contempt of the other soldiers. That is not what great soldiers are made of.
I wasn't afraid to die. At that age, nobody thinks he can die. I declined to volunteer because I was afraid I'd be shamed in front of the other men.
Well, I've since been embarrassed so many times that now I can't even remember what it feels like to dread it. But I'm also at that ripe, safe age of 50. Nobody's going to invite me to a war now. If I went, they'd send me home.
So it's easy for me to say that this war with Islamicist fanatics and the governments that support them is unavoidable and necessary. No matter what happens, I'll spend the war at home, writing about it.
But my son has no such safety. Nor do other people's sons. And since this war can indeed be brought to our soil, there might be none of us immune to the ravages of war.
How can we understand it? How can we know what it is that soldiers face?
There are newsreels and documentaries and old news footage, but what's been shown to us is largely sanitized. We've never been shown the brutal images of bodies blown apart or torn open, never the screams and whimpers of the wounded and dying.
And even if we did see the footage that got swept away on the censors' floor, it would be only the faces of dying strangers -- not men we had known, had trained with, had counted on.
We would not be right beside them when they got ripped or burned or drowned or buried or crushed or any of the other brutal possibilities of war; we would not have that terrible certainty that it could just as easily have been us who suffered what they suffered.
In the fictional "Saving Private Ryan," Stephen Spielberg attempted to show the fog of war, the uncertainty about what was happening -- and there were some who were present at D-Day in Normandy who said that the movie captured some of that feeling.
"Saving Private Ryan" could make us feel the confusion, by it could not at the same time show us the clarity. Even the most confused soldier knew certain things:
They are aiming these weapons at me, and there is nowhere I can hide unless I get on that beach, up to that seawall, and -- after they start firing pre-aimed mortars at exactly the places where we survivors of the beach are hiding -- up that bluff directly ahead of us to the top, which is crawling with guys who are trying to kill everything that moves down here on the beach.
No movie can make an audience feel that, because movies are always over there, on the screen, happening to somebody else.
But books can be different. As we read them thoughts are put silently in our minds, where our imagination paints pictures, not of someone else at a distance, but of ourselves intimately involved in the events.
Not every book can do this. It takes a superb writer, and it takes accurate and honest witnesses.
The supreme historian of war in our time is, without question, Stephen E. Ambrose.
I first noticed Ambrose because of his biography "Richard Nixon: The Education of a Politician, 1913-1962." Ambrose began writing it as an opponent and critic of Nixon, but to his surprise (and the horror of many of his friends), he came to admire much about Nixon and ended up writing of him with, yes, criticism of his flaws, but also respect and even, sometimes, admiration for his achievements and his character.
It took a brave man to publish a book that would be so out-of-step with the attitude of the social circles in which Ambrose moved. I sought out more of Ambrose's writings, because I knew I could trust him to go wherever the evidence led.
With his longtime connection with President Eisenhower (helping edit his wartime papers), Ambrose became perhaps the most widely and deeply educated historian of the European theater of World War II. His oral-history-based books are marvelous in detail of experience and clarity of context.
When I read Ambrose's account in "D-Day" of the men of the 116th Infantry who came under the most brutal fire and suffered the most drastic losses on Omaha Beach on D-Day, I come as close as I think I'll ever come to being able to imagine what it's like to plunge into the water heading for a beach under heavy fire.
When I read "Band of Brothers" I got the best sense I've ever had of belonging to a military unit through long service in a war.
"Pegasus Bridge" took me step by step through the process of preparing superb soldiers for a do-or-die mission that simply cannot be allowed to fail.
"The Wild Blue." "Citizen Soldiers." His many books on Eisenhower himself.
This year, as America returns once more to a war that may turn out to be a years-long struggle against an enemy at least as dangerous to the world and to us as Nazi Germany or militarist Japan, Stephen Ambrose is clearly the historian who is our most reliable guide to understanding what war is, how it must be fought, and how it can be won or lost.
And yet the military book of the year 2001 is not by Stephen Ambrose.
That honor goes to "Ghost Soldiers," by Hampton Sides.
It is the story of the most feeble survivors of Bataan, who, after years in Japanese prison camps, were under the direct threat of being murdered by their captors before they could be liberated.
To prevent that, the U.S. Army authorized a militarily insignificant but morally urgent raid by some of the finest soldiers we ever fielded, with the vital help of hundreds of brave Filipino insurgents. Their mission -- to go behind enemy lines and, right under Japanese noses, bring out every one of those surviving prisoners.
There was no more powerful or moving book of history published this year. Nor a more balanced one. Sides does not deny the atrocities committed by the Japanese or the mistakes committed by the American leaders who too often let our soldiers down. But he does explain those things, so that by the end we understand everybody.
And that is all we can ask for -- for a writer to help us understand important experiences we have never (thank God!) lived through ourselves.
Copyright © 2001 by Orson Scott Card.
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