“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.