Jason R. Koivu
on Nov. 11, 2014 :
What is courage? I doubt I'm qualified to answer that, but I believe Lt. William A. Sirmon is. After facing machine guns and having bombs rained down upon you for months, to voluntarily go back to the frontline after being invalided out due to ticket-home, severe injuries suffered during a mustard gas attack, to me that's the sort of person that might be able to answer the question, "what is courage?".
That's War is Sirmon's diary which picks up on January 1, 1918 at Camp Gordon in Georgia, where he and his comrades drilled, drank, danced, sang and laughed. He's an upbeat, goodnatured fellow with a good heart and a few minor vices, which makes him someone the reader can easily warm to. Although this is a military diary, which tend to be dry, analytical and dull as dirt, his writing is surprising eloquent and full of life. His buoyant sense of humor lifts the drudgery of reading about his mundane daily routine.
However, the light-hearted Sirmon becomes a good deal more serious when finally sent to the front. That, to me, is where the real value of the journal comes into play. Here we see the effects of war work upon a human psyche day by day. Though his new life is difficult and occasionally gruesome - not all of the details of which are spared the reader - never does the diary fall into melodramatics...well, aside from when Sirmon is being purposefully silly.
Sensitive readers should be warned. Sirmon and many of his comrades are Southern Boys born and bred. They held the prejudices of their time and place. There is a regrettable passage or two which reveals the racist tendencies of the day. It is unfortunate. I am one of those who finds it hard to forgive such behavior, but having read the diary in its entirety, I feel mostly mollified to Sirmon's behavior. In one particular series of passages we see his interactions with a black man, who goes from being little more than a disagreeable color in his eyes to a person with a name, a heritage and value.
There is a great deal of tedium in the long days at Camp Gordon that fill up many pages prior to Sirmon's deployment. The diary is said to be unedited, which for prosperity's sake is best. However, a few less monotonous posts would've improved the overall reading experience. Ah, but that would not be true to life, and in the end I prefer mine warts and all.
(reviewed 2 years after purchase)
on June 24, 2013 :
I received a copy of this book to review from the author's great-grandson.
The book is a reproduction of Captain Sirmon's diary from 1918. It is not a novel, but reads as a story with the young officer recording his experiences, first in the U.S. training for deployment, then the arrival in France, his first experiences on the front line, and ending the day after the Armistice of November 11th.
This is an amazing document, both as a piece of the war's history, but also as the experience of a front-line officer doing his best to do his duty and lead his men to victory. Again, it isn't a novel, and so has no plot, but I found myself flipping the pages as though reading an adventure story. The twist, of course, is that all of the events really happened.
I live in the south of France and have traveled to villages all over the country. Every village in France has a war memorial in the center of the town where the names of the war dead are carved in stone to honor their sacrifice. One constant throughout France is that every single memorial shows the greatest number of dead from the '14-'18 war. Like the other combatants, a huge percentage of the male population was killed in five years of brutal destruction. Sirmon's diary captures the end of that insanity in a human and engrossing voice. I recommend this book to anyone who wants to understand the realities of front-line combat and its effect on the men who fight.
(reviewed 4 months after purchase)
William L Stuart
on April 8, 2013 :
I found this book to be absolutely fascinating. Having spent some time floating around on a submarine, I could easily relate to the repetitive training and excruciating boredom that often accompanies military service. But even more compelling to me was the matter-of-fact and humble account of the horrors of war. Not a blood and guts narrative, Lt. William Sirmon's diary of that last year (January through November 1918) of the War to End All Wars, chronicles the dreadful conditions that the doughboys faced and their perseverance and determination to defeat the Germans and restore peace to the world.
The narrative, at times, seems almost lighthearted and irreverent - especially while Lt. Sirmon's brigade was training at Ft. Gordon, Georgia. He laments the need to get up so early in the morning, how cold it is, how miserable the weather is, and many other common complaints among soldiers, airmen, and sailors everywhere. Yet, throughout, there was an overwhelming optimism about America, America's role in the world, and the hope that they would get to war and strike a blow against Germany. This was never more evident than during the transit across the Atlantic Ocean when many of the soldiers were seasick. They did not bemoan their circumstances but instead vowed to make the Kaiser pay for their discomfort!
The book was not, however, a celebration of war. There were horrors enough in it, but Lt. Sirmon chose not to dwell on those. Written in the style of the times, there is little in the way of foul language, no graphic description of horrible injuries, and the descriptions of the beautiful French countryside and the brave people displaced by the tragedy of the war are haunting.
Lt. Sirmon's account gives a great historical perspective to the conditions on the front and the fears that all soldiers who have been in combat can relate to. I particularly appreciated the patriotic and heartfelt love of country that he showed - even at the worst of times.
I can't say that the book was enjoyable in the way a war novel can be, but I think it opened my eyes to the harsh realities of war, albeit told in a gentle humble way. I would recommend it for anyone who wants to get a taste of war or see WWI through the eyes of a front line participant. Give it a try, and remember to thank those who served for the freedoms you enjoy! Thank you Brannon Sirmon for bringing your great grandfather's words and experiences to us!
My rating - 4.5 Stars!!!
(reviewed 30 days after purchase)
on March 15, 2013 :
Magnificent in scope and remarkable in the ability to place the reader alongside a most facinating soldier...this is real history..and compiled so very well by Mr. Sirman.
Some first person accounts of life during momentous times can tend to be staid..not the case here..THAT'S WAR is a book that touches the heart and extends the intellect.
THE JAMES MASON COMMUNITY BOOK CLUB
(reviewed the day of purchase)
on March 11, 2013 :
A very insightful book... or rather a journal, written by an American officer who served in World War One. The author of the journal is a talented writer, and quite adept at describing his experiences. He does so in such a way that you can almost picture the hilly countryside and the little towns and even the cobbled streets between old castles and farmland.
Surprisingly, the tone of the related events is upbeat and positive, even as the author describes in heart-wrenching detail the life-and-death struggles of the Doughboys along the trenches of the Western Front. You will cheer for them as they fight to restore freedom to the French, and successfully prevent the Germans from advancing any farther.
I would recommend this story to anyone looking for an honest, detailed peek into the Great War.
(reviewed 4 days after purchase)
on Feb. 26, 2013 :
“That’s War” is a great little slice of history, and a necessary antidote to an unfortunate tendency in war fiction whereby the dead are killed yet again by writers who stamp out their characters’ spirits—erasing a bit more of their lives—in a well-meaning effort to laud their heroics.
The more distant we are from a war, the easier it is to place its participants on pedestals. But when writers do this, they turn their subjects to stone statues, devoid of personality, fit to be emulated, but unable to be interacted with, or understood. It’s a Medusa-like trait. Not only does it turn the subject into something not quite human, it speaks to a certain ugliness in the writer; often such writers seek a little vicarious glory in the writing, but the act is usually a distraction from their own foibles and personal weaknesses.
"That’s War" goes in the opposite direction, presenting the unfiltered diaries of Mr. Sirman’s great-grandfather, a doughboy in World War I. From the first lines—a New Year’s Day observation that he hasn’t made any resolutions—it’s clear that he’s an engaging diarist, relatable and funny and (as far as we can tell) honest. And most importantly, human—he works hard and sounds eager to go to war, but he also parties, drinks, cavorts with women, and doesn’t want to get out of bed in the morning.
This book charts the bulk of 1918, during which America’s armies lumbered into action, training and organizing and exercising themselves into shape so as to grapple with Europe’s best. Many political and strategic issues were at stake. European commanders, stunned by the ferocity of a war unlike any they’d seen, seemed hesitant to use the Americans as anything other than cannon fodder; they sought to break up American units and put them under European command at a relatively low level, where they’d possibly end up being additional meat for a meatgrinder that had already been operating beyond all limits or rationality. But thanks to the tenacity of their leaders, we see Sirman and his men working as part of an army that sought parity with its allies—subordinate to General Foch, but also united under the command of General Pershing.
Nothing controversial there—and a sentiment that surely would be popular today. (One can easily imagine Fox News talking heads pontificating about the dangers of placing American soldiers in French units.) But Sirman’s great-grandfather does show himself to be a man of his times elsewhere, regarding African-American soldiers fighting on the Western Front. He’s fairly blaze about the casual racism those men faced, and he also echoes some of the common sentiments whereby it was assumed that black soldiers needed to led by white officers because they wouldn’t respect black officers enough to follow them into battle.
And this is as it should be, at least as far as diaries go. We may find such attitudes distasteful and racist, at odds with our own sensibilities, but they were also common, and any attempt to pretty them up for present-day consumption would be dishonest and untrue. It would turn a valuable history lesson into a useless reflection of present-day attitudes, an exercise in vanity rather than study—a mirror instead of a magnifying glass.
Still, the virtue in this diary isn’t in just its examination of race relations in the army, but its overall look at one officer’s passage through a very tumultuous year—from the training fields of Georgia to the battlefields of France, including a couple cameos by officers who might have been Douglas Macarthur and George Patton. Judged solely by the quality of writing, it might be a 4 1/2 star book, a half-notch below the best World War I books by participants—Robert Graves’ "Goodbye to All That" and Siegfried Sassoon’s "Memoirs of an Infantry Officer," by officers who had the advantage of writing years after the events in question, whereas Sirman’s usually setting things down on the day in question.
It might have been better to get a little more reflection. (There’s a stretch where Sirman’s writing with a little hindsight to catch up on some dramatic events, and this period allows him to string the days together into stories rather than keeping them as isolated diary pages.) But memoirists put themselves on pedestals, too, whereas diarists don’t always have time to. So we get a look at him in the moment—and we see the courage and the fear alike, as we should. In a way, it’s easier to want heroes who are superhuman, because that absolves us of our need to do great things—if we feel we’re not equipped with the same faculties, we have an easy excuse for our inaction. But books like this show us that the opposite’s true—heroes are people just like us, people who don’t necessarily want to go to the front lines, or even to get out of bed for that matter. In short, they’re not people who do things we can’t do—they’re doing things we don’t want to do. And they don’t want to do these things either, but they do them anyway.
(reviewed 27 days after purchase)