Veterans Day, November 11, began as Armistice Day—the day on which World War I, or The Great War as it was then known, came to a messy, awkward close. But as later wars became more significant to America, Armistice Day changed to Veterans Day as a way to celebrate all veterans of conflicts past and present. In keeping with that goal, five excellent new books offer fresh perspectives on the American military experience.
A grandfather’s legacy
James Carl Nelson’s The Remains of Company D: A Story of the Great War began as a quest to uncover the past of one American veteran of that war—Nelson’s grandfather, a taciturn Swedish immigrant named Jon Nilsson. He came to America only to be drafted by his newfound nation and sent back across the ocean to fight on the very continent he had left behind. Knowing only that his grandfather had been wounded by a German machine gun in the battle of Soisson, Nelson was inspired to discover his story, as well as the story of the other men who found themselves running into the German lines on that fateful July day. The result is a moving account of young men swept into a war few truly understood, who nevertheless found exceptional courage amid horrors they never imagined. Using personal accounts derived from journals and letters of the men and their families—many who never knew their sons’ and husbands’ final fates—Nelson recreates their experiences in vivid detail. The Remains of Company D immerses the reader in the world of the doughboys, helping us see a war of dwindling memory through the eyes of those who lived—and died—while waging it.
From Pusan to Inchon
Another war even less well-known to modern readers is nevertheless considerably closer in time—the Korean War, with origins almost as muddled as that of World War I. The Darkest Summer: Pusan and Inchon 1950: The Battles that Saved Korea—and the Marines—From Extinction, by Bill Sloan, recounts the origins and first year of what almost became America’s greatest military disaster. As might be expected from the subtitle, Sloan focuses heavily on the contribution of the Marine Corps, which prior to the Korean conflict was in danger of being reduced to little more than a ceremonial guard. In Korea, the Marine Corps proved itself to be America’s only truly battle-ready force in the wake of drastic post-WWII military cuts. Sloan deftly combines a thorough explanation of the causes and politics behind the Korean War with riveting descriptions of the battles, from the near rout as North Korean forces pushed the woefully ill-equipped and under-trained U.S. Eighth Army almost into the sea at Pusan, to the stunning reversal at Inchon that handed the U.S. its greatest military triumph since D-Day—only to be reversed yet again when China poured human wave attacks across the Yalu River. Sloan’s account ends there—but one hopes he will pick up the story once more. In era when the world is once again facing strategic challenges in Korea, The Darkest Summer is a compelling read and a timely reminder of a “forgotten war.”
Like the veterans of World War I, the men and women of World War II are slowly leaving us behind, and with them goes the living memory of their deeds. Antony Beevor’s D-Day: The Battle for Normandy is a powerful reminder of just how great their accomplishments were. Beginning with the build-up to invasion, Beevor follows the Allied forces through the greatest amphibious landing in history, across the hedgerows of France and through the glorious entry into Paris. From the upper-level planning of generals to the desperate fights of the men themselves, Beevor skillfully covers the full scope of the summer offensive that liberated France and signaled the inevitable end of Hitler and the Third Reich. Whether you’re familiar with the names and events of 1944 or curious to learn more, Beevor’s D-Day is a comprehensive and thoroughly engaging journey back through time.
Equally engaging is John Keegan’s The American Civil War: A Military History. The master of military history sets his pen to what may be the most seminal war of the American experience, the war that remains the bloodiest conflict and the most indelible in the American historical consciousness. Whereas many books share the story and causes of the war, or discuss the personalities, politics and battles, Keegan examines how and why the war unfolded as it did—both the deliberate strategy-making and the almost accidental developments brought about by such disparate concerns as geography and social politics. The result is a highly readable overview of the war that goes far beyond merely describing who fought where. Through Keegan’s book, one gains an understanding of why the battles happened as they did, where they did, and how they fit into the whole story of the war and its resulting influence on our nation. Both the casual reader and the Civil War buff will find much to appreciate in this excellent work.
Lastly, we come to a book about a place that is unquestionably the most sacred military site in the national psyche. No battle was ever fought there. It saw no triumph of arms, no treaty, no surrender, no speech of resounding note—but its importance to the nation and the nation’s military is unequaled, because it is the final resting place of our most honored dead. Robert M. Poole’s On Hallowed Ground: The Story of Arlington National Cemetery explores the history of the vaunted cemetery across the Potomac from Washington, D.C., and the uniquely American approach to honoring our military heroes. What began as a way to punish Robert E. Lee by seizing his Arlington, Virginia estate and rendering it “inhospitable” for his return, turned into one of the greatest sources of healing for a grieving, divided nation. It also inspired an unparalleled commitment by the country to find, identify (if possible) and, if requested by the family, bring home with honor the body of every American service person who died in battle, regardless of where or when. Poole’s book is both sobering and inspiring as it explores the history of this remarkable tradition and the quietly majestic site to which many of those men and women have returned. As we celebrate the living on Veterans Day, On Hallowed Ground is a beautiful portrait of the place where we honor their fallen comrades.
Howard Shirley is a writer in Franklin, Tennessee.
YouTube trailer of On Hallowed Ground: