Reading about War to Train for War

By Burke, Mike | Army, April 2003 | Go to article overview

Reading about War to Train for War


Burke, Mike, Army


American Soldiers: Ground Combat in the World Wars, Korea, & Vietnam. Peter S. Kindsvatter. Foreword by Russell F. Weigley. University Press of Kansas. 432 pages; notes; index; photographs; $34.95.

Peter Kindsvatter, retired lieutenant J. colonel and now command historian of the Army's Ordnance Center and School, presents a fascinating compendium of soldiers' experiences in the big wars of the 20th century. Unlike other scholars, he has chosen to give equal weight to works of fiction as well as diaries, memoirs and autobiographies. This expands the rich field of sources and provides a comprehensive answer to that age-old question of what combat is like.

He upends many stereotypes; World War I soldiers were not all cheerful doughboys off on a great adventure; World War II and Korean War GIs were not all world-weary, reluctant citizen soldiers; and grunts in Vietnam were not all drugged-out fatalists. The weight of his hundred or so writers presents a far more complex and contradictory portrait. This may act as a useful corrective to any notion that there is some military type that we must emulate in order to be successful soldiers.

Kindsvatter has another, didactic purpose in mind, too. He sees reading about combat as the best kind of training for the experience of war. He thinks we should regard these memoirs and works of fiction as being just as useful as any field training-some-thing with which I am very much inclined to agree.

In this book, we meet veterans many of us have met before: Philip Caputo and Frederick Downs from Vietnam; William Manchester, Samuel Hynes, E.B. Sledge, "Rocky" Blunt and Paul Fussell from World War II; Lord Charles Moran from World War I. We also meet some less well-known: Robert Merrick, Will Judy and Charles MacArthur from World War I; soldier Robert Leckie and marines Dan Levin from World War II and Howard Mattias from Korea, among many others.

Likewise, the novels discussed range from the famous to the little known. Most famous, James Jones' World War n trilogy, From Here to Eternity, figures prominently, as does James Webb's Fields of Fire. Interestingly, Jones' novels are among the very few written by enlisted men, and Jones is perhaps unique in recording the prewar, peacetime Army. I was drawn to several other novels, many obscure, such as Thomas Boyd's World War I novel Through the Wheat, in part because they were new to me. Curiously, he leaves out combat veteran Anton Myrer's novel Once An Eagle, perhaps Army officers' favorite book about themselves. This is not much of an omission, however, since the work introduces us to so much new material.

The book is organized into broad thematic areas, such as war's environment, coping (and failing to cope) with combat, the rear areas and leadership. Two interesting chapters take unconventional views. One concerns the segregated and later integrated military's experience as seen through the eyes of African-American soldiers. Kindsvatter presents the story accurately and fairly, letting the many unofficial voices speak. The other is an odd but compelling chapter called "The Joys of Combat." This surveys the experiences of those men who were variously very good at combat, or were drawn to what one writer called "the opiate of the front," the fascination with combat itself. In many ways, this chapter is the most important in the book because it explains-at least in part-why so many men, in Vietnam veteran William Broyles' words, "love war. …

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