On War, Part Three: Lest We Forget

For those of you who missed the last blog post:
A couple of weeks ago I spent the day attending the fifth annual “On War” military history symposium at the Pritzker Military Library. This was the third time I’ve attended and the third time I’ve come away with a notebook full of ideas, factoids, and hot leads that I want to track down—complete with stars, arrows tying ideas together, and an occasional streak of highlighter. It was the first time I came away feeling like I was there as part of the community rather than an interested outsider. By day’s end I was both exhausted and energized. Most importantly, I was ready to write.

In previous years I’ve written reports on the conference as a whole. This year I’m exploring a couple of the ideas that caught my attention over the next few blogposts.  You can see the previous posts here and here.


There were three more panels to the symposium. Here are the highlights:

Tim O’Brien, author of The Things They Carried, on the difference between writing fiction and non-fiction: Nonfiction aims for the reader’s brain. Fiction aims for the reader’s stomach, the back of the throat, the nape of the neck. (Personally, I don’t think it’s that cut and dried. I’ve read fiction that is an intellectual puzzle and non-fiction that has made me rage and cry.)

Michael Robbins, author of the Pritzker Library’s beautiful new coffee table book commemorating WWI, on the causes of that war: It was triggered in part by the size of the standing armies and the speed with which they could be mobilized.

Peter Paret, winner of this year’s Pritzker Literature Award, on what’s sometimes described as the “new military history”: It isn’t new. Historians were writing the history of wars together with the history of society, culture ,and ideas in the nineteenth century. You can’t get answers to the big questions about war by staying at the level of tactics and operations. (Can we get an “amen”?)


As often happens at events of this time, a recurring, and presumably unplanned, theme emerged across the panels. This year it was the idea that war doesn’t end just because the opposing powers sign a treaty. * Here’s the form that idea took in three different panels:

Allan Millett, discussing the transition from Japanese control to nationalist resistance, made the point: “In a lot of these places, the war didn’t really end; it changed.”

Michael Robbins took Millet’s point a step further, and said that wars never stop when the treaty is signed: “It’s not just that people down at the end of the line didn’t get the news. Chaos has been unleashed.”

Tim O’Brien: “There’s an illusion that wars end when the the peace treaty is signed.” He then argued that wars live on in the lives of the veterans, what he described as “the things I carry with me.”


Moral of the day? Wars end not with a bang, but a whimper.



*Sometimes a treaty doesn’t ever get signed. I was stunned to learn that Russia and Japan never signed a peace treaty at the end of World War II—the ownership of a string of desolate volcanic islands off the coast of Hokkaido, known as the Northern Territories in Japan and the Kuril Islands in Russia, is still an unresolved issue. It’s not a meaningless pissing match: the islands are rich in minerals, control prime fishing grounds and have the potential to be strategically important.  In other words, you don’t sign the peace treaty because you’re crossing your fingers behind your back and anticipating the needs of the next war.


  1. Iris Seefeldt on November 29, 2017 at 6:26 pm

    I find your blog a good insight into the whole topic of what is War?
    Now comes insight from the perspective of the extended family of the person in the midst of the battle and the peripheral damage done to those coming after. It is of interest because I and many others of my age also have actually experienced it.
    I was born in 1943, in the southwest of Germany near the French Swiss border. In the midst of that War which had been going on in my country, my city since 1939 I became a living witness to a part of that memory. My great grandparents, then still living, had also experienced its devastation with the first WW.(Both being of short term in and of themselves in comparison to skirmishes we now have which are still refereed to as “The War in … ” etc.)
    A mere 6 years after I was born, the path to my grade school was littered with its anecdotes. My memories are not erased as Tim O’Brien mentions. My visual reminders were the craters, burned out churches, monuments, fountains, villas, buildings forever gone and a visible lack of wild life even then. In this country no one can remember back to the Civil War which was the destruction occurring on this continent now 154 years back. If we do anything we must listen to the ancestors and see through their eyes if that is possible.

    • pamela on November 29, 2017 at 8:52 pm

      Thank you for sharing this. You bring a much needed perspective to this discussion.

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