Sunday, September 23, 2007

Book Review: True War Stories

The sub-title of this book pretty well sums up what it is: “A new selection of over 50 unforgettable accounts of the horror and heroism of war.” I’ve already forgotten a few of them, so I would dispute the ‘unforgettable’ bit, but otherwise it has it about right. I was attracted to this book largely because it is composed of many stand-alone accounts of war, which meant I could read it off-and-on at my leisure. That and the fact that it is war stories, and I’m a boy who likes pretending I’m a soldier.


Overall I found it had a good range of different stories, highlighting many aspects of war. As the sub-title stated, it depicted war in its most glorious and most gory moments, a balance I appreciated. I bought the book wanting a resource that would give me a glimpse into as many facets of conflict as possible. In this I wasn’t disappointed. On a superficial level it covers all three of the armed forces, with stories from airmen, infantry and naval crews. In a more general sense, it includes accounts written by retreating forces, captive and escaping soldiers, hospitalised wounded and, of course, attacking legions. Because of this it is a relatively comprehensive snapshot of what happens in wartime, and I would recommend it to people looking for such a resource.

Some of the stories are not for the faint-hearted. The editor, Jon Lewis, was not afraid to include stories of abhorrent acts of torture on POW’s and chronicles the darker side of what men at war are capable of. A particularly heart-rending chapter comes from the pen of Rudolf Hoss, the commandant of Auschwitz, describing some of the atrocities he oversaw and his personal response to them. It makes for compelling reading, but readers must be warned that there are some pretty vivid descriptions of what goes down.

While this is true, there are a number of cases where the opposite is true. That is, the description tends to be too concerned with facts, places and actions that it lacks the spirit of the event. This is especially the case with those accounts written by historians. While being informative, these sections failed to give me much insight into what the lives of soldiers are like, which was a large reason why I got the book.

I much preferred the accounts from recent wars (that is, the First World War or later) and so a criticism I have is that it included too many chapters on more classical conflicts. I find it easier to imagine and relate to narrations of modern warfare, and so I found the older stories quite dry in comparison. This is purely my opinion though, and really it didn’t detract too much from the book.

I found the book especially beneficial for a few reasons. Firstly, hearing tales of people in such extreme circumstances caused me to appreciate what I have a lot more. Having read that book, I view my prosperity completely differently. It is too easy to get into thinking what we in the west have is normal, and so it was healthy to read about what it cost others to get it.

Secondly, I guess it stirred something John-Eldridge-like in me. I know I’ve raved about it a bit lately, but reading war stories makes me think it really is good for a man to fight for something. I just get the impression that the people in all these stories possess something that we, with our cushy lifestyles, lack. I refer to John Eldridge’s book ‘Wild at Heart’ not because I agree with everything in it, but because I think he’s on the mark in that it isn’t good for a man to live only a standard life of earning money to own a good house and car, he needs to live for something more.

Another reason I appreciated this book is because I was fascinated by how the moral standards of people changed when the arm of civil law was removed. There’s probably enough in that to have another post on its own (which I plan to write) so I won’t talk much more about it here.

This isn't a very spiritual book, so if you're looking for a book that will sit on your shelf and make you look good to other Christians, this isn't it (and I'd recommend you think about why you buy books). Nor would I recommend this book to those who, like me, really only want war stories from the last century. While it does deal frequently with these, I'm sure there are better books out there. However if you are looking for a book that gives a fairly good picture of what war is like from a personal perspective, this compendium does a fairly decent job.

1 comment:

Laurence said...

Good review... I'd like to borrow that off you at some point. For a completely different look at war, from a fictional perspective, you should read Catch-22 by Joseph Heller. It is a fictional book written in a strange, dry humorous style, yet in it's absurdness it brings out some truths about the craziness of war.