By the time I was 14, I had read Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front, Pierre Boulle’s The Bridge Over the River Kwai, and Joseph Heller’s Catch-22. I don’t think I was particularly precocious or drawn to novels about war. These books just happened to be in my family’s library, and something I can’t possibly recall prompted me to pull them from the shelf. I’m certain I was a little young to fully appreciate the books, and I need to reread them all.
But I can tell you that these fictional representations of two world wars both fascinated and repelled me. I was horrified by the realities and the inanities of war, and reading these books made me militantly anti-war at a very young age.
As I prepared to write my own novel, I had to dig into each of these wars in a little more depth. The primary character, based somewhere between loosely and explicitly on the grandfather I never knew, served in France during World War I and accepted a job as a civilian at the Aberdeen Proving Grounds in Maryland during World War II.
I had already spent some time digging into WWII while David Hoefer and I were compiling The Last Resort. But, for the novel, I needed to know particulars, especially about the first few months of America’s involvement and how civilians responded to having the country engaged in yet another war.
WWI was much fuzzier for me, so I’ve done some reading over the past couple of years to catch up. I also had the good fortune of multiple visits to an expansive exhibit about the war, curated by Margaret Spratt, at the Hopewell Museum in Paris, Ky., in 2017. And today I attended a screening of the cinematic wizardry that is the film They Shall Not Grow Old, Peter Jackson’s montage of original film footage transformed by vast teams of immensely talented technicians and then overlaid with excerpts from BBC interviews with soldiers who served during the war. The result is a powerful immersion in the trench warfare experienced by tens of thousands of soldiers, many of them absurdly young. I came away wondering what I always do when I gain a clearer understanding of the brutality of war: how anyone survives intact.
I am by no means a scholar of these two wars. I do not have the depth or breadth of understanding of a curious high school student. But I have tried to grasp some kernel of truth about the sacrifices these men made and the moral lassitude that threatened their souls while fighting in a foreign land for reasons that weren’t always clear against men who in so many ways were just like them. If I have any hope of understanding my grandfather’s story, or my father’s story, I have to peer into that ugly maw, if only from the shelter of my comfortable armchair.