Paul to Marie, 7 July 1917
I received your letter from the 3rd where you say that I sem to be happy. Listen my dear if I didn’t cherish in my heart the love of my wife and my child and my parents if I were all alone on this earth then yes I could count myself happy because when the weather is warm as it has been lately and I have everything that I need I cannot really say that I am unhappy especially since the Boches don’t ever fire on us. I am not happy because no one is happy in war I missm y home and those who are dear to me I also miss my freedom but in comparing my life to that of all my comrades then in comparison to them I really am happy.
From When Trumpets Call: Theodore Roosevelt after the White House (2005), by Patricia O’Toole
Archie [Roosevelt] was also struggling to comprehend the brutality of what he had seen and done. In one French raid he had rushed a burly German and fired five shots into him at close range, he told [a friend].The German fell forward. From my aim, and from his look, and from the way he fell, I knew I had done for him. But I felt I absolutely had to stamp on him. I brought my left heel down on his face, by the mouth, as hard as I could. It went right in, and my boot was splashed with blood up to the ankle. Then I ran on.
That was an absolutely primitive action. I was a man of the Stone Age at that moment, hating my enemy and wanting to humiliate him even after he was dead. If I had had more time, I should have spat in his face. As it was, I stamped on it. . . . . It is extraordinary how savage the men have become. They are absolutely ruthless. I think the fighting and the blood drives them mad, they will kill anything in sight, without asking questions, there’s no talk of guarter. But get them back of the lines with a prisoner and they are very decent. In peacetime, we used to be upset if we saw a man ill in the street. Now, I can see a friend shot right next to me, and I don’t care at all—it seems quite natural, and it’s somebody else’s turn next. I’ll give orders for his tin hat to be taken, or his boots to be taken off, and that’s all.
From Studs Terkel’s “The Good War”: An Oral History of World War II (1984), E. B. Sledge, author of With the Old Breed at Peleliu and Okinawa (1981), talks about his experience in the Pacific in World War II
There was nothing macho about the war at all. We were a bunch of scared kids who had to do a job. People tell me I don’t act like an ex-marine. How is an ex-marine supposed to act? They have some Hollywood stereotype in mind. No, I don’t look like John Wayne. We were in it to get it over with, so we could go back home and do what we wanted to do with our lives.
I was nineteen, a replacement in June of 1944. Eighty percent of the division in the Guadalcanal campaign was less than twenty-one years of age.
. . . .
It was raining like hell. We were knee-deep in mud. And I thought, What in the hell are we doin’ on this nasty, stinkin’ muddy ridge? What is this all about? You know what I mean? Wasted lives on a muddy slope.
People talk about Iwo Jima as the most glorious amphibious operation in history. I’ve had Iwo veterans tell me it was more similar to Peleliu than any other battle they read about. What in the hell was glorious about it?
If I believed in an afterlife, I would believe that all those who choose war as a first resort, all those who lie a nation into war, all those who put young men and women into harm’s way without first having tried all other avenues, all those who put young men and women into harm’s way without adequately supplying and supporting them or planning for their mission, all those who see war as a tool for winning political victories, all those who see war as a chance to make money off the backs of soldiers, all those who speak religion but are cavalier about the taking of human life, all those who unquestioningly support leaders who would march our soldiers to senseless death, and all those who push and push and push for war, but for themselves set “other priorities than military service”—if I believed in an afterlife, I would believe that all those people would face hard questions when they reach it, questions that they would, I am confident, not be able to answer to the satisfaction of their judges.
But I do not believe an eternal judgment will be forthcoming, no matter how high humanity piles its sins. We are their only judges. We must be the ones forcing them to answer the hard questions. We must push, and push, and push until they are discredited and disempowered. We must heap public scorn and shame on their heads. We must, where possible, put them in jail for years on end. We must blacken their names completely, stain the pages of the history books where they appear a hideous, soul-sickening black.
Only by doing such things can we ever hope to stay the hand of their successors in the years to come—successors who are sure to be far more like them than we would ever wish. We must hold them to account.
Only then could we possibly be worthy of those who have given their lives in the name of our country.