For Memorial Day: Ten Authors Who Have Served

Writers, perhaps unsurprisingly, are among the harshest critics of the word “patriotism” and especially of decisions to go to war. Many express sentiments similar to James Baldwin (Go Tell It on the Mountain) who said, “I love America more than any other country in the world and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually.” Despite their often vocal criticism, many authors have served in our armed forces. Here are ten of those who risked their lives and reflected on the experiences of war. 

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1.  E.E. Cummings – Volunteer Ambulance Driver, France, World War I

“America makes prodigious mistakes, America has colossal faults, but one thing cannot be denied: America is always on the move. She may be going to Hell, of course, but at least she isn’t standing still.”

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2.  Ernest Hemingway, Volunteer Ambulance Driver, Italy, World War I

“Once we have a war, there is only one thing to do. It must be won. For defeat brings worse things than can ever happen in war.

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3.  Isaac Asimov,  Philadelphia Navy Yard Naval Air Experimentation Station, United States Army, World War II

“No sensible decision can be made any longer without taking into account not only the world as it is, but the world as it will be.”

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4.  Robert A. Heinlein, Served in U.S. Navy aboard USS Lexington (CV-2)USS Roper (DD-147), World War II

“Liberty is never unalienable; it must be redeemed regularly with the blood of patriots or it always vanishes. Of all the so-called natural human rights that have ever been invented, liberty is least likely to be cheap and is never free of cost.”

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5.  Norman Mailer, served in South Pacific, World War II

“Any war that requires the suspension of reason as a necessity for support is a bad war.”

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6.  Joseph Heller, US Army Air Corps, bombadier, Corsica, World War II

“Anything worth dying for  is certainly worth living for.” (From Catch-22)

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7.  Kurt Vonnegut, United States Army infantry soldier, 423rd Infantry Regiment, 106th Infantry Division, captured during the Battle of the Bulge, survived bombing of Dresden as a POW, World War II

“There are plenty of good reasons for fighting, but no good reason ever to hate without reservation, to imagine that God Almighty Himself hates with you, too.” (From Mother Night)

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8.  Tim O’Brien, United States Army Unit: 5th Battalion, 46th Infantry Regiment, 198th Infantry Brigade Service, Vietnam War

“A true war story is never moral. It does not instruct, nor encourage virtue, nor suggest models of proper human behavior, nor restrain men from doing the things men have always done. If a story seems moral, do not believe it. If at the end of a war story you feel uplifted, or if you feel that some small bit of rectitude has been salvaged from the larger waste, then you have been made the victim of a very old and terrible lie. There is no rectitude whatsoever. There is no virtue. As a first rule of thumb, therefore, you can tell a true war story by its absolute and uncompromising allegiance to obscenity and evil. ” (From The Things They Carried)

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9.  Tobias Wolff, United States Army, Special Forces Officer. Advisor to the South Vietnamese military in Vietnam

“When your power comes from others, on approval, you are their slave. Never sacrifice yourselves – never! Whoever urges you to self-sacrifice is worse than a common murderer, who at least cuts your throat himself, without persuading YOU to do it.”  (From Old School

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10.  Anthony Swofford, United States Marines, Lance Corporal, Scout Sniper with the Surveillance and Target Acquisition (STA) Platoon of 2nd Battalion, 7th Marines, Gulf War

“During the few months Troy had been back home, he’d told his friends about us, and so we quickly eased into the conversation as though we’d all known each other for many years. They embarrassed us with great thanks for having served overseas. They recounted combat events Troy had told them, and we realized by the context of their stories that Troy had made us heroes for his friends because we’d been heroes to him. At this point I was the saddest I’d yet been over Troy’s passing, because the true friend from war is the friend who obliterates his own story by telling the stories of others.”  (From Jarhead)


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