Some Reasons for Writing about War
a catalogue of quotations
The real war will never get in the books. And so goodbye to the
by Walt Whitman [The Real War Will Never Get in the
I consider the true history of the American Revolution, and the
establishment of our present Constitution, as lost forever; and
nothing but misrepresentations, or partial accounts of it, will
ever be recovered.
by John Adams [Travels in Canada and the United States in 1816
and 1817 by Lieutenant Francis Hall (1818)]
The time is not come for impartial history. If the truth were
told just now, it would not be credited.
by Robert E. Lee The Americans at Home by David MaCrae
My arm is paralyzed; my voice that once could be heard all along
the line, is gone; I can scarcely speak above a whisper; my
hearing is very much impaired, and sometimes I feel as if I
wished the end would come; but I have some misrepresentations of
my battles that I wish to correct, so as to have my record
correct before I die.
by James Longstreet [1890 letter to Osmun Latrobe]
A morsel of genuine history is a thing so rare as to be always
by Thomas Jefferson [8 Sept 1817 letter to John Adams]
Camerado, this is no book, / Who so touches this touches a man.
by Walt Whitman [So Long!, Leaves of
If I tell you a story, you may listen for awhile, and then you'll
fall asleep, dreaming your own dreams; but, as you listen to the
tale I'm sharing with you, you may begin to recognize your own
story, then you will wake up, discovering your distinctive role.
Nobody ever truly knows himself until he tells his story to God.
God alone knows the future, but only an historian can alter the
by Ambrose Gwinnett Bierce
Historians are gossips who tease the dead.
by François Marie Arouet de Voltaire
Perhaps nobody has changed the course of history as much as
by Franklin P. Jones
The voice of history is often little more than the organ of
hatred or flattery.
by Edward Gibbon
What people believe prevails over the truth.
Truth will ultimately prevail where there is pains taken to bring
it to light.
by George Washington
A true account of the actual is the rarest poetry, for common
sense always takes a hasty and superficial view.
by Henry David Thoreau [A Week on the Concord and Merrimack
That which makes someone a good poet also makes them a poor
soldier; but if the good soldier can survive his terrible
education, then he will have also learned how to be a good poet
or parent or priest.
During times of universal deceit, telling the truth becomes a
by George Orwell [Eric Arthur Blair]
History: an account mostly false, of events mostly unimportant,
which are brought about by rulers, mostly knaves, and soldiers,
by Ambrose Gwinnett Bierce [The Devil's Dictionary (1906)]
Peace is poor reading.
by Thomas Hardy
If you read about fighting, but have never done it, then you're
just a spectator, and have to believe at least some of the lies
that are written about it. The people who do the things that get
written into stories don't have to read them for the right
answers. Authenticity creates the mythology that everyone thinks
is real. Truth isn't bigger than life ... it
is life. The people who tell lies about it are
afraid to live it.
paraphrase of W.C. Heinz
Memory serves as our backdrop, giving us context and perspective
on the ebb and flow of life's too many changes, which enables us
to achieve the fullness of still-point amidst the confusion and
commotion of existence; everything can become mundane, from the
calm of discovery to the frenzy of battle, if we don't embrace it
as if for the first time, if we don't cherish it as if for the
last time ... each heartbeat noted and each breath savored, each
pain dissected and every joy amplified, every dewdrop recognized
and every sunset appreciated ... feel the explosive overpressure
distort your body, see the afterglow from a tracer's ricochet,
smell the fear sweat blended with insect repellent, listen to the
spent casings tumbling together on the ground ... each moment
replete with amazing sensations!
Legends are the myths we tell history. Stories are the myths we
tell one another. Memories are the myths we tell ourselves. Lies
are the irreconcilable contradictions among these myths.
All good books are alike in that they are truer than if they
really happened and after you have finished reading one you will
feel that it all happened to you, and afterwards it all belongs
by Ernest M. Hemingway ["An Old Newsman Writes"
Esquire (Dec 1934)]
If you haven't been to war then you can't have any war stories to
tell! Lying about war won't make you a warrior
any more than lying about sex makes you a lover,
or about fishing makes a fisher! ... besides,
the important part of any story is not what's
said, but what's felt.
I fear that we read of war, like women gossip, to enjoy the
bitter misery of others.
by Owen Parry
A good writer preserves an air of freedom in his prose,
so that the reader won't know how a story will end – even
if he's reading a history book.
paraphrase of Thornton N. Wilder
Babes crying in the wilderness know that the world already has
plenty of terrifying noise, but there aren't enough clear voices
to smooth our troubled journey through the darkness ... only a
few can speak truth to power.
paraphrase of Thomas H. Cook
Journalists declare that: if something hasn't been reported,
then it never happened. Politicians proclaim that:
whatever happens can be made into something else.
Historians state that: an exception cannot refute the mass of
evidence. Philosophers remark that: a coherent system of
lies can be as effective as truth. People say that: they
never get it right anyway, so what difference does it make?!
It's not that those smug critics know nothing about war, but that
they have utterly reduced its entirety to a singularity. War is
not just one thing – it's many things. War is, in fact, too
many things, large and small, most of which are unspeakable, if
paraphrase of Richard Flanagan
It ain't history 'til it's recorded; so if I
don't report it, it's like it never happened at
The past actually happened but history is only what someone wrote
by A. Whitney Brown
So let us today drudge on about our inescapably impossible task
of providing every week a first rough draft of a history that
will never be completed about a world we can never really
by Philip Graham [remark by Washington Post
publisher to Newsweek correspondents in London
(29 April 1963)]
Throughout, the writer's sympathies have been with the troops who
fought the battles at close range – the men who handled the
rifles, who threw the grenades, who caught the enemy's bullets,
who fought their own fears in the face of the unknown, who tried
to do their duty as United States soldiers even though they were
fighting for a cause they did not understand, and in a country to
whose culture and interests they were strangers. He tried to be
there with them.
by Roy E. Appleman [South to the Naktong, North to the
If our own culture is not to be revised beyond recognition, and
history not to be perverted for ulterior motives, then those of
us who have bled and wept in their forging must contribute to
their preservation for the sake of posterity.
The history of civilization is the history of war.
by Stephen Hunter
History fades into fable; fact becomes clouded with doubt and
controversy; the inscription molders from the tablet; the statue
falls from the pedestal. Columns, arches, pyramids, what are they
but heaps of sand; and their epitaphs, but characters written in
by Washington Irving [The Sketch Book (1820)]
I've never really talked about my wartime experiences with
anyone; and the only reason that I am now willing to discuss them
is that if someone doesn't relate them the way they actually
happened, instead of the fictitious versions portrayed in novels
and movies, then they are going to be lost. Wars are not becoming
scarce, so people will have plenty of opportunity to praise
heroism and fortitude, to witness death and destruction, but I
would like to talk about the young men who will never have a
chance to develop their potential because they were part of that
unique coincidence of events that forever changed history. Their
courage and compassion still awes me after all these years, and
makes me feel unworthy to inherit the results of their
anonymous veteran's preface to oral history collection
The true heroes of the war were the men who's songs went unsung,
who's lives were extinguished – the ones who died alone.
by Andy Remic
We're not descended from fearful men – not from men who
feared to write, to speak, to associate, and to defend causes
that were, for the moment, unpopular.
by Edward R. Murrow
Some had families waiting. For others, their only family would be
the men they bled beside. There were no bands, no flags, no Honor
Guards to welcome them home. They went to war because their
country ordered them to. But in the end, they fought not for
their country or their flag, they fought for each other.
by Joseph L. Galloway
When I think of wars, I don't think of parades or conquests,
victories or defeats. I think of scared young boys in foxholes,
on firing lines, and foreign mounds of earth. I think of sad
mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters and sweethearts. I
think of the children left behind, and those who were never born.
I hope wars end. I think human beings aren't born with the claws
of a bear or teeth of a shark for a reason. I think we were given
advanced brain function with the burden of using it. So here's to
peace, and to all the sons and daughters who never made it back
by Ross Ritchell (2015)
Being a soldier [in the wars of modern power politics] was like
being on a team in a sport that drew no crowds, except for the
players' own parents and friends.
by Dan Wakefield
War talk by men who have been in a war is always interesting;
whereas moon talk by a poet who has not been in the moon is
likely to be dull.
by Mark Twain [Samuel Langhorne Clemens] [ch 45 Life on the
If an historian be an unbeliever in all heroism, if he be a man
who brings every thing down to the level of a common mediocrity,
depend upon it, the truth is not found in such a writer.
by Matthew Arnold
Experience belongs to the actor, but the story belongs to the
teller. We write so we will never forget.
paraphrase of Zia Haider Rahman (2014)
We try to record our impressions of our experiences in pencil on
any available scrap of paper, and after reflecting on them,
rewrite them in our best words in ink on bond, but some things
can only be scrawled in blood with a dirty fingertip ... as if
any of it could be made indelibly heritable.
Every soldier knew that to tell was to remember, and to remember
was to experience, and to experience was to kill and die all over
again. So to tell was to risk death, and to talk would be to lose
your best comrade all over again. How was he to say:
something in me died over there with every one of them
killed. How was he to say: I have lost my brother.
He thought for awhile about the things he did not want to think
about – he tried to chase them from his mind. Then he said,
"It's not simple to forget, and right now I'd like to stop
paraphrase of Robert Olmstead
Feeling isolated and alienated by the surround of so many who had
no inkling of my experience, I hoped for some shared insight and
camaraderie from books about battlefield dramas, whether ancient
or modern, but I soon realized that most of them are about what
the author does not know and will never understand ... most of
these accounts are not about the commonality or wisdom derived
from the tribulation of these formative events, but about the
preoccupations and prejudices of the writers. Reading a book
about war is a revelation of the author's ignorance, wherein the
reader learns more about the writer, and his inadequacies, than
about combat, and its peculiarities.
The truth is that no one who hasn't actually experienced the
senseless chaos and violence of combat can possibly understand
it, but those who have and who try to explain it to the rest of
us are offering us a precious gift: a part of their soul that's
been scorched in the flames of Hell. It's a little like trying to
describe music to the deaf or color to the blind ... to make the
irrational somewhat sensible, which is always confusing and
frustrating, and ultimately futile.
paraphrase of Khaled Hosseini
A soldier's longing to talk about his experiences of battle is a
wound that never heals.
paraphrase of Owen Parry (1999)
So we keep asking,
over and over,
Until a handful of earth
Stops our mouths —
But is that an answer?
by Heinrich Heine (1854)
It's easier to forget the past if nothing ever reminds you of
those leathery old scars that can never again feel any loss or
pain; the old wounds must be kept open if you are going to
remember their cause and regret their occurrence.
paraphrase of Peter Robinson
Warrior poets distract us from the torment of old wounds with
compositions that cause us to suffer new wounds. Their verses
help us to forget the pain of unchangeable battles by inspiring
us for all the coming battles. Their writings comfort us by
keeping our discomfiture acute.
Magyar / Hungarian sentiment
We are men bound by history and circumstance, by the awful
grace of God, and we are reminded that the dead are never
far from us ... they're in our hearts and on our minds, and in
the end, all that separates us from them is a single breath, one
final puff of air.
paraphrase of William Kent Krueger
Some books are undeservedly forgotten; none are undeservedly
by W.H. Auden [The Dyer's Hand (1962)]
This catalogue of quotations on some reasons for writing
about war is merely representative; it's being compiled by
the editorial staff of COMBAT as time permits.
Please send all corrections and contributions to the editorial