Bearing Witness to Modern War

25665As you’re probably aware, the “Recently Returned” shelf in a Library is a treasure of interesting materials that you would not think to look up on your own.  The Soldiers’ Tale: Bearing Witness to Modern War by Samuel Hynes is one such gem that I found recently.  Before you think, how depressing another book on war, read on…I know you, like all of us, have been touched by war.  This book is not a history but a reflection on the “personal narratives” of soldiers, that is, the box of Grandpa’s letters from his service in France, the rotted leather diary carried through Dad’s tour in ‘Nam, the raw Born on the Fourth of July, or the shell-shocked Robert Graves’ trench ruminations.

The author, Samuel Hynes, is a distinguished scholar and Professor Emeritus from Princeton with personal warfare experience as a Marine fighter pilot in the ‘40’s and 50’s – his valor earned him the Distinguished Flying Cross.  With a scholarly, but neutral voice Hynes explores the corpus of published war stories searching to understand the inner change – the solder’s motive for telling the story, and society’s subsequent reaction.  Hynes tell us that war narratives have elements of travel writing, history, and autobiography yet, unlike those other genres, are born from the desire to ease the soldier’s isolation and communicate to the reader the strangeness, desolation, confusion, and horror of war – from which the writer/soldier emerges forever altered.

Hynes organizes the book’s material by war (curiously omitting Korea), focusing on the writings of English and American agents of war – “those who do the killing”. The last chapter interestingly juxtaposes their experiences with those of the sufferers: prisoners of war and victims including those of the Holocaust and Hiroshima.  While the text is filled with alarming insights that only a soldier would understand such as “If you kill your enemy his body belongs to you, it’s part of the loot”; and, relevant to today, “how is a formless war with no front to be won?”; the real value of this book is its astounding bibliography.  Hynes carefully chose his sources, and provides readers with a wealth of further reading.

So why should you read this book? To vicariously indulge in the excitement of war?  To learn what war is really like?  To support and sympathize with living veterans?   The answer is yes.  Complacency about our “perpetual war” reality is too easy.  War is not something that happens “over there”; its impact – its pain – continues years after the peace treaty.  As the daughter of a Vietnam veteran, I read this book with purpose – cover to cover and some sections twice.  I’ll never know my father’s story, he succumbed to his injuries when I was a teenager and because not knowing what really happened to him haunts me, I urge you to read this book.  It will answer some questions and may spark your courage to think, ask and talk about war, and fight for peace.

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