By Callie Oettinger
Published: March 27, 2015
Ernest Hemingway opened his introduction to the anthology Men At War (which he also edited) with:
This book will not tell you how to die. Some cheer-leaders of war can always get out a pamphlet telling the best way to go through that small but necessary business at the end. PM may have published it already in a special Sunday issue with pictures. They might even have it bound up as a companion piece to the issue I read in November 1941 entitled “How We Can Lick Japan in Sixty Days.”
No. This book will not tell you how to die. This book will tell you, though, how all men from the earliest times we know have fought and died. So when you have read it you will know that there are no worse things to be gone through than men have been through before.
When you read the account of Saint Louis the IX’s Crusade you will see that no expeditionary force can ever have to go through anything as bad as those men endured. We have only to fight as well as the men who stayed and fought at Shiloh. It is not necessary that we should fight better. There can be no such thing as better.
It was an anthology, he later wrote, that was for his sons:
This introduction is written by a man, who, having three sons to whom he is responsible in some ways for having brought them into this unspeakably balled-up world, does not feel in any way detached or impersonal about the entire present mess we live in. Therefore, be pleased to regard this introduction as absolutely personal rather than impersonal writing.
This book has been edited in order that those three boys, as they grow to an age where they can appreciate it and use it and will need it, can have the book that will contain truth about war as near as we can come by it, which was lacking to me when I needed it most. It will not replace experience. But it can prepare for and supplement experience. It can serve as a corrective after experience.
I re-read sections of Men At War, knowing my personal battles will never be Shiloh, but that as was his intention for his sons, I can find truth in the anthology — a perspective not my own.
In his book The Return, Dave Danelo tells a story of sitting on a delayed plane in 2005, having just finished a series of interviews with an Iraq war veteran whose friend died alongside him:
As our ground waiting time approached an hour, the man sitting to my left fumed and cursed. He needed a reroute; his schedule was destroyed; something awful (or so he thought) would befall him if immediate action didn’t happen. Unless I found a way off the plane, I was stuck with this guy. Finally, I cut him off in mid-rant. “You know,” I said, “things could be worse.”
It is not always appropriate for veterans to remind civilians they’ve been to war. Sometimes it can be obnoxious, arrogant, or rude. But in this case, I was calm. For me, that’s usually a good indicator to decide whether I should discuss my military identity.
I told my fulminating friend I thought it was a pretty good day when I wasn’t getting mortared and shot at. Besides the risk of our plane crashing, nothing bad would happen to us. We would get where we wanted to go. Everything would work out…. We talked on and off for another two hours. I don’t remember his name.
What I remember was that I gave him perspective. I reminded him of one of the many things my time in the Corps had taught me: do not worry too much about the things you can’t control.
Dave wrote The Return (which is also Black Irish Books’ new title) for veterans, just as Hemingway edited Men At War. However, where Hem wrote of “how all men from the earliest times we know have fought and died” Dave writes of how men have fought and returned. A book written by a veteran, for other veterans, which — also like Hem’s other writings — is just as valuable to civilians.
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