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
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
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
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.
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
It ain't history 'til it's recorded; so if I
don't report it, it's like it never happened at
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.
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
Being a soldier [in wartime] was like being on a team in a sport
that drew no crowds, except for the players' own parents and
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
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.
A soldier's longing to talk about his experiences of battle is a
wound that never heals.
paraphrase of Owen Parry (1999)
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
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