EVERY MEMORIAL DAY AT ARLINGTON National Cemetery, soldiers from the 3rd U.S. Infantry Brigade place small American flags at the headstones of more than three hundred thousand graves. The headstones bear the names of people of every ethnic origin. They mark the final resting places of professional soldiers and conscripts; of rich and poor; Christian, Jew, and Muslim; believer and nonbeliever; descendants of Mayflower pilgrims and immigrants who had barely arrived in the country before they took up arms to defend her; dark-skinned and white; city dwellers and people from small towns and farms; teachers and machinists; businessmen and day laborers; poets and presidents. People of impeccable character rest here. Scoundrels do too. Most were brave; some may not have been. Some of the dead were celebrated successes in their lifetimes, and some obscure failures. Many here perished in war and never had the opportunity to pursue peaceful ambitions; others died in ripe old age, rich in blessings. Some sacrificed willingly, others resentfully. But all of them sacrificed. And families from every place in America have wept at a graveside here.
War might be a great leveler while it is being experienced, but the millions upon millions of Americans who have gone to war are the most diverse population the country could produce. There is no other profession in all of human endeavor as varied as the profession of arms.
This book recalls the experiences of a single American soldier, sailor, airman, or marine in each of the thirteen major wars our country has
fought. We did not attempt to identify the prototypical soldier. No such prototype exists. Not one of the subjects is much like the others. Rather the stories were chosen to represent a particular attribute of their service or condition in their experience of war. Obviously there is some arbitrariness at work here. The conditions illustrated are only a few features in the nature of soldiers and wars. We had only thirteen stories to tell. The intent was to write about things most soldiers in combat will have experienced or witnessed, but even then it is a very incomplete catalogue of commonly shared emotions and experiences.
The subjects hail from different walks of life, though most of them had modest origins, like most soldiers today and in the past. We wanted to represent all four branches of the armed services, as the experience of war can vary from one service to another, though many sensations and situations are common to all.
Many were chosen because they left accounts of their experiences that have survived to the present. Some kept diaries or wrote books or spoke publicly about their wars. A few subjects left little or no record of their service. One subject especially is mostly lost to history; we know where he served and a few incidents from his life and have tried to reconstruct his story informed by the few facts we do know and the experiences of others in the same or very similar circumstances.
We were not looking for thirteen stories of supermen or superwomen. We wanted to write straightforward, honest accounts of ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances. All thirteen soldiers were brave and sacrificed for our country. There are Medal of Honor recipients among them, and others distinguished by high decorations for valor. Some wore no decoration more proudly than their combat infantry badge. They are not perfectly virtuous. The readers will admire some of our subjects more than others, although all have earned admiration. Soldiers come in all types, from righteous, God-fearing human beings to wantonly cruel scoundrels. None of the stories we elected to recount features a soldier who belongs in the latter category, though one of them identified himself as a rogue and possessed some less than admirable qualities.
Soldiers in combat share a genuine and powerful bond, so powerful that they are willing to die for one another. The paradox that makes that
bond so unique is that in their lives before war they might not have chosen to associate with each other. They might not have liked each other. They might not even like each other while they serve together, and yet they will fight for each other, and often die for each other.
Every war occasions heroism and nobility. Every war has its corruptions, which is what makes it a thing worth avoiding if possible. There is compassion and savagery in these stories, terror and valor, confusion and acuity, obedience and insubordination, self-aggrandizement and humility, brotherhood and individuality, triumph and loss, and in all of them, sacrifice for something greater than self.
Each of these stories is also a story of change. Rare is the soldier who is not changed by war. Some are changed for the better and some for the worse, but all are changed in some way and forever. It is a surpassing irony that war, for all its horrors, provides the combatant every conceivable human experience. Experiences that usually take a lifetime to know are all felt—and felt intensely—in one brief moment of life. Anyone who loses a loved one knows what great sorrow feels like. Anyone who gives life to a child knows what great joy feels like. The veteran knows what great joy and great loss feel like when they occur in the same moment, in the same experience. Such an experience is transforming. Some come home and struggle to recover their balance, which war had upset. For those who came home whole in spirit if not in body, civilian life will seldom threaten their equanimity. They have known the worst terrors the world holds and have seen acts of compassion and love that no evil can destroy. They have seen mankind at its most dehumanized and its most noble. No other experience will ever surpass its effect on their lives, and they can never forget it.
Here are the stories of eleven men and two women who went to war for our country, who risked their lives and suffered, and should not be forgotten.