'Sentimentalizing' someone else's war

The author of a new book on the Great War reflects on what it's like to imagine the interior life of soldiers under fire.
Crosscut archive image.
The author of a new book on the Great War reflects on what it's like to imagine the interior life of soldiers under fire.

Last Sunday I stumbled on a review in the New York Times Book Review of a new book about the First World War called The Remains of Company D by James Carl Nelson. Reviewer Elizabeth D. Samet, an English professor at West Point and the author of Soldier'ꀙs Heart: Reading Literature Through Peace and War at West Point, was not impressed, but to me the book sounded promising.

Nelson, a journalist fascinated by his grandfather'ꀙs service in the Great War, set out to reconstruct whatever he could about the battlefield experiences of the men in his grandfather'ꀙs unit, Company D, 28th Infantry Regiment, First Division. (That's the same division, incidentally, in which my great uncle Hyman Cohen served; both Uncle Hyman and Nelson'ꀙs grandfather Pfc. John Nelson were wounded at Soissons in July, 1918. In Hyman'ꀙs case it was exposure to mustard gas, which seared his lungs and left a permanent scar on his chin.) The Remains of Company D is clearly a labor of love and imagination — an endeavor to breathe vivid life into archives, old newspaper accounts, letters, regimental histories.

Samet found little to admire in Nelson'ꀙs book. What struck me most in the review was the stinging slap she delivered in the closing paragraph: 'ꀜNelson ultimately falls victim to the civilian'ꀙs temptation to sentimentalize someone else'ꀙs war — to imagine that mysterious 'ꀘnightmares and knowledge'ꀙ must inevitably texture the veteran'ꀙs every moment.'ꀝ This hit a nerve.

The pain I felt for Nelson got me thinking about my own endeavor to write about 'ꀜsomeone else'ꀙs war.'ꀝ It seems to me that this 'ꀜtemptation to sentimentalize'ꀝ arises, ultimately, from gratitude, from a sense of humility mixed with a little shame: They served, I didn'ꀙt — at the very least I owe them respect. If that respect verges into reverence, if it triggers the civilian writer to imagine a soldier'ꀙs private nightmares, well so be it.

Maybe the fundamental problem for civilians who write about war is that we don'ꀙt know the answer to the nagging question of how we would behave under fire. We devote years of our lives to finding soldiers to write about, following in their footsteps, reading their diaries and letters, poring over their unit histories, seeking out and standing by their graves. We squeeze our eyes shut and try to imagine what it was like for them — and inevitably, what it would have been like for us. What would I have done the first time a shell whistled down in my vicinity or the first time I heard what one Doughboy described as the 'ꀜqueer zeep-zeep, like insects fleeing to the rear'ꀝ of machine-gun fire?

The civilian writer stands at the graveside and wonders. We can'ꀙt know. We can'ꀙt not ask. If asking leads us into the temptation to sentimentalize — well, maybe that'ꀙs an occupational hazard. Better too much imagination devoted to the veteran'ꀙs 'ꀜnightmares and knowledge'ꀝ than too little. We learned that lesson after Vietnam (at least we citizens did).

Some members of our government, including those who voted to send troops to Afghanistan and Iraq, have decidedly not learned that lesson. Take Oklahoma Republican Senator Tom Coburn, commonly known as Senator No, who opposes passage of a bill to aid wounded veterans and their strained families unless the money to fund it be offset with immediate budget cuts. 'ꀜNow he is demanding balanced books for wounded vets?'ꀝ fumed the editorial page of the New York Times on November 15. 'ꀜSheer embarrassment should drive the senator into retreat as he trifles with veterans'ꀙ needs and burnishes his petty role as Dr. No.'ꀝ

I agree with Elizabeth Samet that 'ꀜsentimentalizing someone else'ꀙs war'ꀝ is deplorable if it means getting misty over patriotic service while you vote to deprive veterans and their families of improved care. But if it means finding out everything you can about when and why and how your grandfather was wounded in a wheat field in France 91 years ago and writing about it with reverence and love — then I'ꀙm all for it.


Please support independent local news for all.

We rely on donations from readers like you to sustain Crosscut's in-depth reporting on issues critical to the PNW.


About the Authors & Contributors