The Romance of War

Published:June 6, 2011 by Brendan Wolfe

Today’s “This Day” post reminded me that a couple years ago, I engaged University of Virginia professor Ed Lengel in an online conversation about his book To Conquer Hell, about the World War I battle of the Meuse-Argonne. I’ll reprint two parts, and you can click on the rest at the end of this post if you’re so inclined.

Dr. Lengel,

I asked why Americans these days weren’t so hip to the First World War, and you replied that were it otherwise, we might be forced to confront something beyond “the romantic image of warfare to which Americans remain so attached.” In other words, even in a time of war—or especially in a time of war—“it’s so much easier not to think about it.”

Your response reminded me of a moment from We Stand Alone Together: The Men of Easy Company, a feature-length documentary that accompanied the television miniseries Band of Brothers. A soldier called Popeye recalls being wounded by a German grenade and how afterward he felt as if he’d let the other men down.

Cut to Popeye’s commanding officer, the otherwise stoic Dick Winters (holding back tears): “My God. It’s beautiful when you think of a guy”—cue strings in the background—“who was that dedicated to his company, to his buddies that he apologizes for getting hit. But that’s the kind of guy he was, that’s the kind each one of them was. They were all the same.”

This, I assume, is the “romantic image of warfare” to which you refer. To Conquer Hell, meanwhile, seems intent on slapping readers back into reality. On the first day of battle at the Meuse-Argonne, you write, “seventeen German soldiers surrendered to an American machine-gun company. The Doughboys brought their captives before the company captain and asked what to do with them. ‘I’ll take care of that,’ he snapped and, taking a machine gun, he massacred the lot—one of them ‘just a kid.’”

When a lieutenant asks another soldier what he did with his prisoners, the private replies, “I tended to them, sir.” Meanwhile, a German soldier begging for water is met with a bullet to the head.

You approach these incidents with the detachment of a journalist. In fact, your unwillingness to moralize seems to lend the anecdotes additional power. It also leaves room for readers to wonder whether the horror Doughboys faced in combat wasn’t at the root of this kind of brutality. Do you, for instance, agree with E. B. Sledge, who in recounting his experience in the Pacific during World War II, wrote, “It is too preposterous to think that men could actually live and fight for days and nights on end under such terrible conditions and not be driven insane . . . To me the war was insanity”?

I’m also curious as to how you approached depicting battle in your book. A movie producer would gather up all the latest special effects and then start blowing stuff up. What do you as a writer do?

Finally, you mentioned in an earlier post that one of your goals in To Conquer Hell was to “honor the sacrifices of our ancestors.” How does cutting through the “romantic image of warfare” do that? And have your efforts met any resistance?


PREVIOUSLY: To Conquer Hell: A Conversation (Intro); Part 1; Part 2; Part 3; Part 4

IMAGE: German Prisoners (ca. 1919) by Fred Varley