- How We Are Changed By War: A Study of Letters and Diaries from Colonial Conflicts to Operation Iraqi Freedom
A teen-aged Diana C. Gill was rummaging through her mother’s bookshelves one day when she happened upon an old volume of poetry, with scribbles in the margins. Private William “Billy” Cover, a distant relative of Gill’s, had taken the book with him to the frontlines of The Great War. The scribbles were his wartime diary, through which he recorded his feelings about the poems themselves and his hopes, dreams, and fears about being a soldier, a lonely and homesick combatant in what was billed then to be “the war to end all wars.”
Billy Cover never came home; he died in 1918, at the age of 23. And the war within which he fought never kept its promise about being the last conflagration to engulf the world. But Billy’s annotated book of poems managed to make its way back to the United States, where, nearly a century later, it became the inspiration for Diana Gill’s extraordinary study of wartime letters and diaries. Gill asked herself: Why did Billy record his experiences? Why write anything at all if there is nobody likely to read it? Gill’s answer is her book, How We Are Changed By War, which she imagines, in part, as a long letter to Billy.
It is a beautifully written letter—profound and insightful, filled with moving and sometimes shocking firsthand accounts of war, both from soldiers themselves and from the civilians they left behind on the home front. I cannot say if Billy would have appreciated, or even comprehended, all of her words. But he would have recognized many of the sentiments expressed in the letters [End Page 348] and diaries that Gill gathers together, spanning American conflicts from those that occurred before the colonies’ War for Independence to the Iraqi invasion of 2003. For contemporary readers interested in history or psychology, the personal accounts Gill presents are only half of what makes this book so compelling. As she moves effortlessly back and forth between different examples drawn from different eras, Gill illuminates common themes of wartime experience and draws upon a wealth of scholarly sources to inform her analysis. Her letter to Billy ends up being a deep meditation on the role of storytelling in creating cultural meaning, social solidarity, and individual identity under conditions of overmastering stress. The central motif is change—how people are transformed by war, sometimes for the better but more often in ways that underscore the tragedies, defeats, and ambivalences of life.
Gill dedicates her book to Billy and “to all the soldiers and civilians quoted herein.” The empathy and respect she accords her subjects might lead the reader to expect a more sentimental treatment of her material than Gill ultimately delivers. This will be about how American soldiers long for their sweethearts back home, right? About their devotion to family, country, and God. About their maturation from wayward boys into men of substance and commitment. About finding redemption and meaning amidst, or in the aftermath of, war’s hell.
Yes, the book is about all that—but only partly that. Gill’s choice for an opening quotation warns the reader straightaway that this presentation will be much edgier and much more disturbing than her dedication might lead us to believe. Kermit Stewart is a self-described “pacifist” who finds that his experiences on the front lines of World War II actually reinforce his abiding belief in peace and the “infinite value of human personality.” “Do you wonder that I say I’m sometimes amazed at myself?” he writes home. “I am more of a pacifist than I ever was, but as long as there are vermin like Japs and Nazis, they have to be exterminated—and it is hellish work” (1).
Another World War II veteran describes how his fellow American soldiers massacred a group of Germans...