By Heather Pisani-Kristl
Veterans Day was originally known as Armistice Day for the cessation of fighting between Allied forces and Germany during “the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month” of 1918. Armistice ended “the Great War,” where technological advances had enabled troops to battle each other with previously unknown ferocity. Mortality was high and a quiet generation of veterans, with wounds visible and invisible, returned home.
Readers familiar with World War I who would like to focus on armistice can find it in “The Greatest Day in History” by Nicholas Best, a detailed narrative tying together memorable names from early-20th-century Europe and the United States. Among the accounts constructed from diaries, letters, memoirs and government reports are those from a much younger Douglas MacArthur, Charles de Gaulle, and Adolf Hitler, long before they would see the next conflict.
It took only 21 years for the Great War to lose its grand name and become World War I, as World War II took over the headlines. World War II is the subject of so much quality nonfiction that it’s difficult to settle on one, so we’ll focus on a memoir. “The Eighteen-Year-Old Replacement: Facing Combat in Patton’s Third Army” is Richard Kingsbury’s story of being drafted to Patton’s 94th Infantry Division just six weeks after D-Day. Kingsbury’s honest trepidation about shooting at fellow humans creates an intimacy with the reader that can’t be achieved in a historical narrative of war.
By the time Armistice Day was renamed Veterans Day in 1954, as a tribute to the military service of all veterans, the Korean War had been over for a year. “The Coldest Winter” by David Halberstam provides the most comprehensive view of the Korean conflict. If you’ve already read it, you might choose “A Christmas Far From Home” by Stanley Weintraub, which follows the commanders behind the Battle of Chosin Reservoir and the U.S. Marines and soldiers who managed to escape Chinese forces during this infamous fight.
Like Korea, the Vietnam War was a “conflict,” never officially declared a war by Congress, but unlike Korea, it has produced a huge field of literature and memoir. The autobiographical account “What It Is Like to Go to War” by Karl Marlantes is informed by the author’s years fighting in Vietnam, but his observations about the psychology of warfare apply to the present day as well. Given Marlantes’ skepticism of war and the inner conflict with his status as a decorated war hero, his memoir would be an excellent choice for a book discussion. Marlantes is also the author of “Matterhorn,” considered one of the finest novels on the Vietnam War, which took him over 30 years to write.
From Vietnam we travel to the Persian Gulf, and although there is little literature about the 1990-91 Gulf War, we can’t pass over the bestselling memoir “Jarhead: A Marine’s Chronicle of the War and Other Battles” by Anthony Swofford. Don’t conflate Swofford’s experience with that of the many narratives from the recent Iraq-Afghanistan War, such as “Danger Close” by Amber Smith, a chronicle of an elite female helicopter pilot, or “Rise” by Daniel Rodriguez, the author’s story of surviving Iraq and triumphing over PTSD by earning a spot on the Clemson University football team. The soldiers, sailors and marines serving in Iraq and Afghanistan are publishing as they come to terms with what they have experienced, and I expect we will ultimately see a body of literature that will rival that from the Vietnam War.
News from our friends
Our first-time Oktoberfest booth was a huge success. Thank you to all who stopped by to purchase art books, join the Friends of the La Mesa Library, or register your opinion on La Mesa’s library. Your purchases and memberships support books, movies, magazines, and special events at the library all year long. We hope to see you again!
—Heather Pisani-Kristl is managing librarian of the La Mesa branch of the San Diego County Library. Call the library at 619-469-2151, visit in person at 8074 Allison Ave., or go online at sdcl.org.