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By the Book: Nonfiction allows war tales to resonate


I recently finished two books about war and the men who fight them. There were many similarities: Each followed a young soldier, each focused on a particularly ugly battle, both young men were wounded and each book explored the horrors of post-traumatic stress disorder. ‘Nostalgia’ by Dennis McFarland, however, follows Summerfield Hayes, a 19-year-old Brooklyn boy, as he’s caught in the Battle of the Wilderness in 1864, while ‘The Yellow Birds’ by Kevin Powers takes place in 2004, with 21-year-old John Bartle under fire in Al Tafar, Iraq.

The 140-year time gap reveals huge differences in equipment, supplies and communications, but the PTSD, with its relentless nightmares and flashbacks, affects the two men in very similar ways. The shock of seeing close friends’ lives snuffed out, the constant awareness that you yourself might be killed at any moment, whether by mini ball or AK-47, is ghastly, and the endless carnage takes a heavy toll on each soldier. Sadly, this condition hadn’t been categorized as a disease in 1864 but was seen as a cowardly way to avoid participating in the bloodshed. Thankfully we are more educated now.

Each author has excellent writing skills; the characters are human, genuine people, brave as is required, yet filled with self-doubt as well.

As dreadful as war is, we surely have an enormous fascination with it — there are probably as many Civil War buffs as there are tennis fans; World War II also has a vast audience. Books abound, both fiction and nonfiction, and it’s difficult to choose between genres.

Norman Mailer’s classic ‘The Naked and the Dead’ follows a platoon of soldiers in the Pacific in World War II. We know their names, where they’re from and their different personalities as we read of the patrol in the tangled jungle and harsh mountain. There were skirmishes, there was death and we experienced a personal sense of loss, maybe our eyes filled up, as we read about these fictional, make-believe people. Because we knew them. ‘The Red Badge of Courage,’ ‘The Thin Red Line,’ ‘The Things They Carried’ affected us in the same way — we were distressed because invented people whom we had come to know had been killed.

Nonfiction is, of course, very different. Detailed maps are common. Battle plans and strategies are analyzed, acclaimed, perhaps criticized. These are history books, explaining what happened and why. I’m reading Rick Atkinson’s ‘The Guns at Last Light’ and have finished Part One, the conquest of Normandy. There were 134,000 American casualties — I was strangely unmoved. This was a historical narrative of D-Day and the months that followed and, while treated with enormous respect, the troops were numbers, practically chess pieces, in a monumental board game. McPherson’s ‘Battle Cry of Freedom’ similarly explained Civil War strategies, just as Halberstam’s ‘The Coldest War’ followed the convoluted movements in Korea.

I believe we need both genres. The detailed maneuverings of any battle are fascinating, inspiring and of historical importance, yet I need to choke up a bit over the death of Pfc. John Doe — whom I’d grown close to as his entire life unfolded before me in a novel.

TR050808_book_Case_R.jpgMr. Case, of Southold, is retired from Oxford University Press. He can be reached at [email protected].