Our very literate military

One of my favorite books ever is Paul Fussell’s The Great War and Modern Memory. (Just as a “by the way,” another wonderful Fussell book is Thank God for the Atom Bomb.)  In The Great War and Modern Memory, Fussell examines how the literary British upper-class men who participated in the British war wrote about it, from the unadulterated patriotism of Rupert Brookes (who saw so little fighting and died of an infected mosquito bite at Gallipoli) to the tortured trauma of Siegfried Sassoon, who spent too many years on the Western Front.  Fussell gracefully weaves military history, literary history, and literary analysis into one seamless, tragic whole.  It is an epic work.

Helping to write a letter 1917

Fussell’s book also makes one aware that there are always two wars going on:  the war on the ground, and what I call “the war as perceived.”  Only the troops know the war on the ground but, if one has a literate military, everyone can experience the war second-hand.  Although not as excessively literary as the British, who were steeped in Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton, Donne, etc., American troops did a fine job of bringing the war home, at least through the end of WWII.  They wrote home from the front during the Revolutionary War, the Civil War, World War I and World War II.  Not just that, but during all those wars, a critical percentage of the American male population was engaged in the fight, meaning that, not only were troops writing, a critical percentage of the people at home were reading what the troops wrote.

Things changed after World War II.  We still fought wars and American troops still wrote home, but the audience was shrinking.  Fewer and fewer families had someone on the front.  Americans who did not have a friend or family member in the war lost sight of the “war as perceived.”  Into that vacuum stepped the Leftist propagandists.  They vigorously filled this informational void, most notably with John Kerry’s despicable Winter Soldier lies.  With Vietnam, on the home front, the “war as perceived” began to have a great deal to do with hostile sources — our home-grown communist fifth party — and nothing to do with the military’s own experience.

British chaplain helping WWI soldier write home.

The internet has changed all this.  In the ordinary course of things, between my environment (blue, blue Bay Area) and demographics (I’m too old to have friends who fight and my children are too young to be part of the fighting generation), “the war as perceived” would have passed me by.  Or, to the extent I did learn something about it, that knowledge would have come from the MSM filter, which is alternately maudlin or hostile when it comes to our fighting troops.

But with the internet  . . . well, that’s a different thing entirely.  We get front line reports, not from reporters, enemies, and propagandists, but from the troops themselves.  We also get “back line reports” (for want of a better phrase).  We don’t just learn from the troops about the blood and smoke.  We hear, first hand, about the camaraderie, the training, the boredom, the skill sets, the loss, and the foolish fun.

This first person war reporting is incredibly important.  It’s one of the reasons why, all efforts notwithstanding, the Lefties have been unable to turn Americans against the troops.  Because of the blogs, we know the troops, unfiltered.  They’re young men and young women who train, fight, play, dream, love and hate.  They are us.  We cannot pretend that they are some alien killer beings because the troops themselves won’t let that pretense exist.

The U.S. Army stays connected.

The other thing milblogging teaches us is that so many of those who serve in our military our excellent writers and thinkers.  They are well-informed, thoughtful, funny, intelligent and generally people with whom it’s nice to spend time.  When I read my favorite milblogs, I always think to myself “Gosh, I’d like to have lunch with that writer.”  (To my favorite milbloggers, that’s a hint.  If you’re going in be in town, drop me a line.)

I’d therefore like to introduce you to a few of my favorite milbloggers.  I’d also like it if you’d use the comments section to introduce me (and everyone else) to a few of your favorite milbloggers:

The Mellow Jihadi

Castra Praetoria

Neptunus Lex

CDR Salamander


And a newbie, a female Marine:  Tin and Phoenix

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  • http://photoncourier.blogspot.com David Foster

    The Great War and Modern Memory is an important book and demonstrates what an earth-shaking WWI cataclysm was to society…although he focuses on the British experience, much of what he says in terms of the impact was common to all the European belligerents.

    A good companion book to Fussell’s work is Erich Maria Remarque’s novel The Road Back…nowhere near as well-known as his All Quiet on the Western Front, but an even better piece of literature, IMO. In one scene, a group of German soldiers has returned to the high school from which they departed in 1914, and the principal is giving a “welcome-home” speech in the old oratorical style…that same style which Fussell observes the War made unsustainable:

    But especially we would remember those fallen sons of our foundation, who hastened joyfully to the defence of their homeland and who have remained upon the field of honour. Twenty-one comrades are with us no more; twenty-one warriors have met the glorious death of arms; twenty-one heroes have found rest from the clamour of battle under foreign soil and sleep the long sleep beneath the green grasses..”

    There is suddden, booming laughter. The Principal stops short in pained perplexity. The laughter comes from Willy standing there, big and gaunt, like an immense wardrobe. His face is red as a turkey’s, he is so furious.

    “Green grasses!–green grasses!” he stutters, “long sleep?” In the mud of shell-holes they are lying, knocked rotten. ripped in pieces, gone down into the bog–Green grasses! This is not a singing lesson!” His arms are whirling like a windmill in a gale. “Hero’s death! And what sort of thing do you suppose that was, I wonder?–Would you like to know how young Hoyer died? All day long he lay in the wire screaming. and his guts hanging out of his belly like macaroni. Then a bit of shell took off his fingers and a couple of hours later another chunk off his leg; and still he lived; and with his other hand he kept trying to pack back his intestines, and when night fell at last he was done. And when it was dark we went out to get him and he was as full of holes as a nutmeg grater.—Now, you go and tell his mother how he died–if you have so much courage.”

    Not only Willy, but several other student/soldiers rise to challenge the tone of the Principal’s speech:

    “But gentlemen,” cries the Old Man almost imploringly, “there is a misunderstanding–a most painful misunderstanding—”

    But he does not finish. He is interrupted by Helmuth Reinersmann, who carried his brother back through a bombardment on the Yser, only to put him down dead at the dressing-station.

    “Killed,” he says savagely, “They were not killed for you to make speeches about them. They were our comrades. Enough! Let’s have no more wind-bagging about it.”
    The assembly dissolves into angry confusion.

    Then suddenly comes a lull in the tumult. Ludwig Breyer has stepped out to the front. “Mr Principal,” says Ludwig in a clear voice. “You have seen the war after your fashion—with flying banners, martial music, and with glamour. But you saw it only to the railway station from which we set off. We do not mean to blame you. We, too, thought as you did. But we have seen the other side since then, and against that the heroics of 1914 soon wilted to nothing. Yet we went through with it–we went through with it because here was something deeper that held us together, something that only showed up out there, a responsibility perhaps, but at any rate something of which you know nothing and of which there can be no speeches.”

    Ludwig pauses a moment, gazing vacantly ahead. He passes a hand over his forehead and continues. “We have not come to ask a reckoning–that would be foolish; nobody knew then what was coming.–But we do require that you shall not again try to prescribe what we shall think of these things. We went out full of enthusiasm, the name of the ‘Fatherland’ on our lips–and we have returned in silence,. but with the thing, the Fatherland, in our hearts. And now we ask you to be silent too. Have done with fine phrases. They are not fitting. Nor are they fitting to our dead comrades. We saw them die. And the memory of it is still too near that we can abide to hear them talked of as you are doing. They died for more than that.”

    Now everywhere it is quiet. The Principal has his hands clasped together. “But Breyer,” he says gently. “I–I did not mean it so.”

    My full review of this book is here.

  • http://OgBlog.net Earl

    Why does this make me think of the pious statements coming from Hillary Clinton, the SecDef, and others in Washington D.C. concerning the video allegedly showing Marines pissing on the bodies of dead Taliban?
    I’ve never been at war….but I can EASILY imagine myself doing something similar under the right circumstances!  Circumstances like an enemy that wears no uniforms….that hides among civilians….that shoots at me and my comrades from hiding and then runs into the market……that waits until the kids gather for us to give them candy and then sets off a bomb…..etc. etc. etc.  In other words, an enemy like our guys have to fight in Afghanistan.
    It would be “wrong” to do what these guys are alleged to have done (and what I’ve said that I would probably also do)…..but the wrong allegedly done is miniscule compared to the wrong that WILL be done if these guys are found, held up to worldwide scrutiny and obloquy, and then sanctioned in some way.  THAT would represent precisely what David Foster’s quoted story was about….in my opinion, always.
    D.C. politicians make me ill.

  • jj

    I don’t think it’s a better book than All Quiet, and Remarque wrote it to make a point.  In the course of doing so he also – I suppose inevitably – managed to miss a couple of other points.  It’s difficult to find the balance – and he didn’t.  In All Quiet he didn’t even try, he came from one direction – the one he understood – and wrote a much better book.
    WWI was an oddity on the landscape of war.  Before it war was about movement, impelled by the cavalry – and after it war was again about movement, impelled by ground-support aircraft and tanks.  WWI, at the close of the one era and on the cusp of the other, was unique.  Men had never before – and haven’t since – hunkered down in in trenches, glaring at each other across a no-man’s land, unable to move – for months on end.  It produced a great deal of “down-time,” and since the various patriotisms of all sides involved everybody, this naturally included the writers.  Faced with an ocean of time, what do a society’s writers do?  They write.  Thus an alien, landing for the first time on this planet, could be forgiven for supposing – based on the surviving results – that World War One was a literary exercise.  (Thus Rowan Atkinson as Captain Blackadder, complaining about conditions in the trenches, could lament: “The lice, the trenchfoot, the horrible food, the rivers of mud, the endless poetry!”) 
    Most in Europe – at the time – thought that much of what was written about the war – from people in it –  was balderdash.  Exceptions – of course; but generally balderdash.  Belgium, France, Germany and Britain all pretty much agreed in the immediate post-war that if there was a verse that captured it, it was Heinrich Heine’s, from his Enfant Perdu – the Houghton translation:
    But war and justice have far different laws,                                                                                     and worthless deeds are often done quite well;                                                                                The rascal’s shots were better than his cause,                                                                                  And I was hit – and hit again, and fell.
    Nothing else need be said.  Everybody on all sides carried Heine in his pocket, from Winston Churchill to Prince Rupprecht.  Heine has a trick of suiting all moods, and that suited all Europe – though it wasn’t even written about the war.  You take your emotional sustenance where you can find it, and that piece got it, as well as or more clearly than the guys who were up to their noses in that mud, despite that in later life they turned out to be Robert Graves, or John McRae, or Remarque, Ernest Hemingway, or even Tolkien.

    So, given that they had the time to write, what they produced, in those more literate and literary times, was literature, not reportage.  They all wrote very personally, and even the poetry was very close to memoir.  I suspect that even granted the technology, they wouldn’t have been very good bloggers.

    And I applaud the ones you cite, who are blogging.  They aren’t producing poetry (and why would they – who the hell reads poetry any more?), but they are indeed giving us the first-person accounts.  We don’t need to wait months or years to know them, we know them now.  We don’t need to have what they’ve seen and done filtered through some network pinhead for us, they can tell us themselves.  And though there is a lot they don’t tell us, we can often read between the lines and know it anyway, when they’re cold, or lonely, or scared.  They are good writers, and perfect for the time.


  • jj

    Odd spacing on the verse – sorry.  Don’t know why WordPress – or often enough Word, for that matter – do what they do.

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  • http://www.milpundit.com Milpundit

    Prior to the internet, very few with first hand combat experience were articulate enough, or had the means, to portray what really went on in combat. Fussell is one of those rare Americans who did. His book Wartime, an account of his front line service during WWII, is a must read for understanding that conflict.  As Earl notes, the failure of imagination of our politicians on the Marine pissing controversy is the real atrocity. And as Bookworm points out, the military remains immune to the charms of the left because, unlike progressives, it lives in the real, brutal world where the moral high ground is really an ant hill.