Descriptions of Combat in Current Literature

I recently came across the following quote from James Jones, the author of From Here to Eternity:

“I don’t think that combat has ever been written about truthfully; it has always been described in terms of bravery and cowardice. I won’t even accept these words as terms of human reference any more. And anyway, hell, they don’t even apply to what, in actual fact, modern warfare has become.”

I think Jones was correct when he was writing (he died in 1977), but current authors, it seems to me, have gotten much gutsier. Some readers have complained about my explicit descriptions of combat, particularly in Last of the Annamese. My purpose in conveying the grisliness of the battlefield is that I want the American people to know what they are sending their young men and women into when they decide to go to war.

Other current authors are more specific than I am. Lucia Viti in her Dr. Tom’s War: A Daughter’s Journey (Rogue Books, 2011), quotes combat veterans at length as they describe in gross detail the gruesomeness of combat. And Doug Stanton’s The Odyssey of Echo Company (Scribner, 2017), which I reviewed for the Internet Review of Books (the review is due to be published on 27 November), pulls no punches in depicting the carnage of men fighting to the death.

I think we writers have changed for the better. Fighting men and women do show great courage and self-sacrifice, but based on what I lived through and observed, their motivation is to protect and save the person fighting next to them, not patriotism or love of country. Those two virtues may have prompted men and women to join the military, but on the battlefield, the guy fighting next to me is more important than anything else. The bond between men and women fighting side by side is the strongest human commitment I’ve ever experienced.

So I’m glad writers now tell it like it is. A small fraction of 1 percent of all Americans have ever experienced combat. Maybe writers like Viti and Stanton will show them what their brothers, son, husbands, and fathers have suffered. And nowadays, our women are facing the same brand of slaughter.

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