Monday, April 23, 2012

Why I hate war but love reading about it

If you're someone who flies with any regularity, try this:

The next time you're sitting in the gate area waiting to board a plane, look around at what everyone else is reading. And specifically, look at what the middle-aged males are reading. Three-quarters of the time, if they're reading a book rather than a newspaper, it's going to be some sort of nonfiction history. And most of the time, that means military history.

As a group, we guys in our 40s and 50s LOVE us some military history. The Civil War is a big one. Lots and lots of Civil War books to be seen at airports. Many of these readers, I've noticed from their accents, are southern. Which means for them, they're not "Civil War" books at all, but rather "War of Northern Aggression" books. No event in American history has been debated, discussed and generally dissected more than the Civil War, especially among those who are still fighting it for one reason or another.

You'll also see a lot of guys with books on World War II. There's a more direct connection there, since many of our fathers and grandfathers actually fought in "Dubya-Dubya Two," as Archie Bunker always called it. A lot of men can picture themselves as GIs slogging it out at Guadalcanal or fighting the Germans in the Battle of the Bulge.

Which I think is sort of the point. I believe one of the main attractions of military history for men of my generation (or maybe any generation) is that they see war as a manly, virtuous thing. When you sit at a desk all day, there can be a part of you that longs to do something macho. And what's more macho than carrying a rifle and killing foreigners?

My war of choice is World War I. At last count, I had read, cover to cover, 25 to 30 different books related to the First World War. I've done sermons at church that tie into it, and I genuinely want a membership to the Great War Society (yes, there is such a thing).

But if you have any compassion at all, to be a student of World War I necessarily means that you are anti-war. No one with a shred of decency can read about the slaughter of millions of young men on the battlefields of France and Russia and think that war is anything but vulgar.

And yet I'm fascinated by it. When I read about trench warfare and what it was like to go "over the top" with 60 to 80 pounds of gear on your back into heavy machine gun fire and poison gas shells, I invariably try and put myself into that situation. I wonder if I would have had what it took to attack knowing the odds of my survival were slim. Knowing that a single bullet to the gut could mean a slow and painful death in No Man's Land. I want to see how I would measure up.

Because that's how we guys are raised, you understand. It's always about passing tests and showing you're tough and all of that. Some boys are smart enough to avoid that stuff and seem to understand their inherent self-worth without having to prove it by fighting.

I didn't get into many fights myself, but I still did pretty much whatever anyone dared me to do. I guess I felt better about myself when I passed whatever "test" was put in front of me. Many times, the "test" was something stupid and dangerous. And I still did it. Dumb, dumb, dumb.

The point is, part of my fascination with war is wondering how I would handle it. And at the same time, I feel incredibly blessed that I've never had to find out. Nor would I ever want my sons to experience it. When it comes to All Things Soldier, I walk a fine line between obsession and repulsion.

When I used to hang around airports, I often wondered if the guys reading those war books were thinking the same thing I was. If they were wondering, "Oh sure, I can write up a memo and do a sales forecast, but how would I react if a 6-foot-4 German came at me with a bayonet? Would I be man enough to handle it?"

Such a strange and pointless way of thinking, I know. What does it matter? If my boys are going to wonder about their manhood, I would rather they ask themselves how they would handle their anger in an argument with their girlfriend or wife. Or how they would react to the sorts of moral and ethical dilemmas that define who we really are. I would rather they ask how tough they are in spirit rather than in fist.

But still, I have to admit, whenever I read one of my Great War books, I always end up mentally putting myself in those filthy, stinking trenches. And the answer to how I would perform in battle really matters to me. I wish it didn't, but it does. I have a sinking suspicion it always will.


  1. Be glad you don't know about war first hand. War is hell. I was in Vietnam and can imagine what the civil war and WWII and WWI and korea was like. All very, very bad. If all the countries leaders had to be infantry men there would be no war. Oh, and for the record you would have been fine in battle. You'd be surprised what you can do when you have to.

  2. Thanks for the insightful comment, Jack. I appreciate anyone who has had to serve in any theatre of war. And I think you're right...a few months with the infantry is probably enough to make anyone a peacenik!