On War in Fiction: “It is good that war is so terrible….”

I hope all is well with everyone!  I’m picking up from last month with my series on war in history and what we can learn from it that might help our fiction.

In this series of posts, I’ll be exploring some themes gleaned from military history to illuminate points that I think many people misunderstand or perhaps just blindly disbelieve because they desperately wish it were otherwise.  I hope you find them useful!


Lee on Traveler

It is good that was is so terrible, else we should grow to fond of it.

–Robert E. Lee,

It was a cold December day in 1862 as General Robert E. Lee, commanding the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia, looked out across the battlefield of Fredericksburg. He was watching his men below slaughter his opponents in the generally one-sided fight.  Row after row of gallant northern soldiers drove across a field, trying to wrest an essentially impenetrable position from Lee’s men.  As he watched, he turned and made the statement above.  For many, it seems nonsensical:  Who could ever grow fond of war?  After all, as I argued in March, “war is cruelty and you cannot refine it.”  History teaches us, though, that war has its “good” side, and that people can indeed grow “fond” of it.  Any depiction of war needs to address this element as well in order to be realistic.

As we proceed, please note that I’m not trying to make war look like it is a positive thing.  War is terrible and it leaves its scars on everything it touches.  It steal lives, saps youth, destroys nature, and undoes years of human progress.  War is best avoided altogether.

But it doesn’t follow that where there is a war, nothing good can exist.  Perseverance, strength, and honor often balance out cowardice, cruelty, and lies.  Adversity (which war by definition inflicts in spades) and while it destroys many of those that it touches, it also often refines those who are subjected to it.  Those survivors go on to become leaders and can benefit and protect their people in ways they otherwise wouldn’t.  It breeds strong friendships, making men brothers and forging deep bonds.  All of that is something that, while none of them would want to go through it again, can make people look back on war as something meaningful.

Another important point to remember is that while we like to think that a warrior’s job is to make war 24-7, the reality is much, much different.  The vast majority of a soldier’s time is spent doing things completely disconnected to violence and bloodshed.  As another Civil War soldier once observed, “War is two months of complete boredom punctuated by twenty minutes of utter terror” (my paraphrase).  Most of their time was spent in camp, doing menial chores or drilling.  When not in camp, they usually were marching to another camp.  Weeks could pass without either army getting close enough to see each other–and that was during the campaigning season (from about March until about October).  In the winter they would set up a more permanent camp and sit there until the winter passed.  That, much more than visions of glorious, gory combat, is what “war” has meant for millions through history.

So, in short, while as authors we should not allow ourselves to become fixated on the “glories” of war, neither should we simply reduce it to its horrors.  If we want to write the best, most accurate depiction of war that we can, we must look at it in all its diversity, and then pass that diversity and complexity on to our readers.


Next Week–Is there such a thing as the “laws” of war?


About Brian

I am a history professor and author living with my family in the Virginia Mountains. It's hard to improve on a life like this!

Posted on April 5, 2013, in Brian Melton, History, Speculative Fiction, Story, War, Writing Hints and Helps and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. In Richard Adams’ book TRAVELER, Lee’s horse thinks of war as a kind of utopia because the men are so anxious to get to it. “But we never did make it to the war,” he tells the cat in the barn, “because we kept running into the blue men and the bangs.”

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