Military conflicts tend to become diluted with the passage of time. Most of us know, for example, that the Battle of the Somme - one of the deadliest battles of World War I - claimed over 1,000,000 men killed or wounded in a short five month span. But how many of us know what those men endured? What do we know about years spent living in trenches as the introduction of the tank appeared and gas warfare was a daily fear?
Skipping ahead to World War II, the vast majority of us have seen the iconic photos of the Normandy invasion and the carnage wrought as the Western Allies established their first foothold in a Europe overrun by Hitler. But what was it like to experience that? The sheer terror, the loss of friends, the uncertainty of it all -- we look back with the luxury of knowing how the war would end. The soldiers fighting there did not have that luxury.
From the Great War to the current conflicts in the Middle East, it occurs to me that the greatest honor we can pay someone who gave their life in the service of their country is to remember -- remember why they fought. Thousands and thousands of books have been written about wars. From their overriding political roots (mostly still argued about as historians and politicians are wont to do) to the daily experience of the soldier, books are perhaps the most effective way of learning - and remembering - the sacrifice of Americans over the years.
Not every story is about a hero. Soldiers, like all of us, suffer flaws. Despite American patriotism to the contrary, heroics are far less important than their experience. You can't properly remember these soldiers without understanding their experience. You can do the most honor to those who died by never forgetting what they went through.
A trip to your local library or bookstore will turn up countless books for you read, covering every war, every battle, every experience imaginable. If you're a little overwhelmed by the choices, here are five notable books to get you started.
Philip Caputo's memoir of his sixteen months spent fighting in Vietnam can best be summarized in his own words: "This is simply a story about war, about the things men do in war and the things war does to them." If you only ever read one book about war, make sure it is this classic book. You won't be the same after reading it.
Rick Atkinson's Liberation Trilogy has not only been the recipient of the Pulitzer Prize (An Army at Dawn) but it is not considered one of the most definitive texts on World War II. Beginning with the campaign fought in North Africa and later with the Italian campaigns and the Normandy Invasion, the entire purpose of this extremely accessible work is to illuminate the role the U.S. played in the liberation of Europe.
Richard Rubin is perhaps best known for this amazing book in which he traced as many American World War I surviving veterans he could find in 2003 in order to glean what he could from their memories of the great conflict that ushered the world into the modern age. The result was an astonishing collection of memories - irreplaceable and nearly lost to time. The Last of the Doughboys is an oral history that every American ought to read.
The political causes and fallout of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are still being digested. One can find opinions spanning the spectrum, most of them with a political agenda behind them. Sebastian Junger, fresh off his wildly successful book The Perfect Storm, decided that it would be more effective and enlightening to follow one single platoon for their entire fifteen month tour of duty in Afghanistan's Korengal Valley. The result is nothing short of breathtaking. No matter what your political affiliation, Junger's book cannot fail to move you as he strips this divisive conflict down to it's core: soldiers just trying to survive.
First published in 1992, this account of the Battle of Ia Drang in Vietnam is already considered a classic. Written by General Harold G. Moore and journalist Joseph Galloway, the book is the result of hundreds of interviews with the soldiers who were there. The result is a riveting and disturbingly honest look at what these men endured in an obscure valley, thousands of miles from home, in a conflict they didn't fully understand. While here in America the conflict in Vietnam redefined an entire nation, the Vietnam soldier carried on with the ugly business of war only later to return home to a country that had changed forever in their absence.
I hope you find time to remember those who died this Memorial Day. I know I've only listed five books here so please feel free to comment and tell me the most moving and important war books you've read.