"War is hell," said Civil War general William Sherman. We can begin to understand a fraction of its truth only through stories, which makes theÂ Veterans History Project, a repository of more than 80,000 firsthand accounts of servicemen and women from World War I through today's wars in Iraq and Afghanistan collected by the Library of Congress,Â an especially invaluable resource as we celebrate Memorial Day.
Stories of war, from combat in the Argonne Forest to the perils of convoy transport in Iraq nearly a century later, give voice to the millions of soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines who've shouldered arms in defense of the United States.
The collection's interviews, letters, videos and photographs have reached the Library through veterans' families, friends or comrades in arms, says Robert Patrick, director of the project, an extension of the American Folklife Center in Washington, D.C. â€śIt's history as a collection of stories, put together to tell the story from the ground up,â€ť says Patrick. â€śYouâ€™ve got generals and statesmen whoâ€™ve written their memoirs and described their grand strategies, but these are people who turned wrenches, ran hospitals and marched on the ground.â€ť
There are extraordinary tales, from Lt. Roland Neel's gripping account of his pilot pulling control wires by hand to keep his wood and canvas biplane from crashing on the battlefields of the Western Front in 1918 to Col. Rebecca Winter's description of her convoy coming under enemy fire in the Iraqi desert in 2003.
Veterans who've seen action frequently say it's something that can't truly be described, that it's terrifying and exhilarating all at once. Scanning these accounts offers some hint to other readers, even if the stories themselves are sometimes told with great difficulty.Â A 98-year-old veteran of bitter battles in Italy in 1945 once quipped that "combat concentrates the mind wonderfullyâ€ť while it's happening, but that it's often difficult to recall the details of war.
The very accessible submission process gives anyone a chance to preserve a wartime story. â€śIf you want to do something important this Memorial Day, sit down with a veteran,â€ť Patrick says. â€śYouâ€™re capturing a part of history by keeping these stories with us, even after many of these veterans are gone.â€ť
The trove includes recollections from Frank Buckles, who died in 2011 at age 110, the last American survivor of the Great War. He brought history to life -- in one of his last interviews he noted that two years as an ambulance driver with the American Expeditionary Force earned him the princely sum of $143.90, including a $60 bonus.
The ordinary concerns that arise even in extraordinary situations are a constant presence. Bill Washington, an army sergeant whose military service took him out of the Baltimore ghetto, relates both the racial tensions of the military during the Vietnam War and the mundane frustrations of having only ham and lima beans rations to eat during the harrowing 1968 siege of Khe Sanh.
An examination of the archives hints at larger lessons to be learned from listening to veterans.Â In discussing his 1996 memoir, â€śDoing Battle:The Making of a Skeptic," the late scholar and critic Paul Fussell, known best for chronicling war's horrors and their profound influence on culture in â€śThe Great War and Modern Memory,â€ť described the lasting impact of his own experiences as a young infantryman fighting in southern France in 1944. â€śYou learn that you have much wider dimensions than you had imagined before you had to fight a war. Thatâ€™s salutary. Itâ€™s well to know exactly who you are, so you can conduct the rest of your life properly.â€ť