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Some Reasons for Writing about War

a catalogue of quotations

The real war will never get in the books. And so goodbye to the war.
by Walt Whitman [The Real War Will Never Get in the Books (1882)]

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 (1870)]

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 valuable.
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 Grass (1891-1892)]

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.
Jewish saying

God alone knows the future, but only an historian can alter the past.
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 historians.
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.
by Sophocles

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 Rivers (1849)]

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 revolutionary act.
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, mostly fools.
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.
anonymous veteran

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 to you.
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.
anonymous veteran

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 not ineffable.
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 all.
anonymous journalist

The past actually happened but history is only what someone wrote down.
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 understand.
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 Yalu]

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 the dust?
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 generosity.
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 home.
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 Mississippi (1883)]

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 remembering."
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.
anonymous veteran

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 remembered.
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 staff at:

P.O. Box 3, Circleville, WV 26804 USA; or
majordomo @ COMBAT .ws