Top of page

National Book Festival Presents “War, Combat and the American Soldier” on March 25

Share this post:

The following guest post was written by Karen Dahlgren Lloyd, director of the Veterans History Project, American Folklife Center.

War, Combat and the American Soldier
On Thursday, March 25, at 7 p.m. ET, prominent historians of war Margaret MacMillan (“War: How Conflict Shaped Us”) and Rick Atkinson (“The British Are Coming: The War for America, Lexington to Princeton, 1775-1777”) will be in conversation with philanthropist David M. Rubenstein.

Civilization and progress may continue to march forward, but mankind’s proclivity to war continues unabated.

Award-winning historians Margaret MacMillan (“War: How Conflict Shaped Us”) and Rick Atkinson (“The British Are Coming: The War for America, Lexington to Princeton, 1775-1777”) recently discussed this very topic with philanthropist David Rubenstein, in a conversation recorded exclusively for the Library of Congress. Their conversation, part of the year-round series National Book Festival Presents, will premiere tomorrow, Thursday, March 25, at 7 p.m., on the Library’s Facebook page and its YouTube site (with captions). This presentation will be available for viewing afterward at those sites and on the Library’s website.

During the discussion, both authors spoke of the human impulse to war that we see captured in the narratives archived in the Library’s Veterans History Project. MacMillan sees war as a driver of change while Atkinson emphasized that the stress of combat reveals an individual’s character. They both agree that war seems to bring out the best and worst of humanity.

The conversation moved to soldiers’ willingness to die for their country. Atkinson, who has embedded with troops, uses his experience to describe the bonding that occurs between individual soldiers and its impact on their actions during combat. He describes this phenomenon as “blooming.” Atkinson believes this generates soldiers’ willingness to sacrifice for their fellow soldiers or unit, which is often interpreted as a natural extension to sacrifice for their country.

MacMillan’s research supports this, but she contends that the concept of sacrifice for the nation is relatively new, dating only to the late 19th century. This loyalty is frequently reflected in the collections that veterans donate to the Library covering World War 1 through the current conflicts.

You will want to hear MacMillan and Atkinson’s fascinating discussion of gender and war. Both agree that how roles are viewed is culturally driven and centers around expectations that men fight and women take care of the home front.

They also agreed that throughout history, women have proved they are as capable as men to serve in the military.

Following are some selected stories from the Veterans History Project:

Private First Class Irving Greenwald

Private First Class Irving Greenwald
Private First Class Irving Greenwald. Veterans History Project, American Folklife Center
Diary of Private First Class Irving Greenwald. Veterans History Project, American Folklife Center

Private Irving Greenwald, a New Yorker, was drafted into the Army and fought in France during World War I. The centerpiece of Greenwald’s collection is an original diary, donated to the Library in 2015. The diary is very small—truly pocket-sized—and Greenwald made use of every millimeter of it. His handwriting gets smaller and smaller as the war wears on, to the point of being almost indecipherable to the naked eye. The diary is remarkable not only in its form but also for its content. His entries are rich with historical details about camp life, trench life and his stay in the hospital after being gassed. It also contains deeply poignant passages about his homesickness and thoughts on the war.

Second Lieutenant George Washington Pearcy

Second Lieutenant George Washington Pearcy
Pearcy in uniform with helmet and gear, Philippines. Veterans History Project, American Folklife Center

Following the outbreak of World War II, George Washington Pearcy entered the Army in 1940 and served as an infantry officer at Bataan and Corregidor. He was captured by the Japanese in 1942 and spent the next 29 months in a series of POW camps. During this time, Pearcy wrote on the backs of canned food labels, hospital paperwork and Army maps, making extensive notes about his experiences, compiling rosters of men in the camps and dreaming up plans for the future. Pearcy’s diary entries reflect the squalid conditions and extreme deprivation that he and his fellow POWs endured—as well as his enduring optimism, resourcefulness and determination.  In 1944, the Japanese forced thousands of allied POWs onto ships bound for mainland Japan. Pearcy perished when his ship was torpedoed by a U.S. submarine. Before making the trip, Pearcy gave his diary to a fellow prisoner named Robert Augur. Augur had lost a leg during the Battle of Corregidor and due to his injury, stayed behind. Augur was liberated in 1945 and once back home, he mailed the diary to Pearcy’s family, who had yet to receive official confirmation of their son’s death.

Master Sergeant Ellis Ross

Veteran leaning on jeep in Sicily. Veterans History Project, American Folklife Center
Veteran’s friends Frank and [Deese] next to sign pointing to Rome. Veterans History Project, American Folklife Center

In addition to diaries and correspondence, the Veterans History Project also welcomes collections of photographs. In the case of Ellis Ross, a West Virginia native who served with the Army Quartermaster Corps in Europe during World War II, his photographs are indeed worth a thousand words and speak volumes about the experience of African American soldiers who served abroad.

Ross focused his lens on his service buddies, documenting their time on- and off-duty. His photos depict sailing trips, time spent at the beach and countryside scenes in Italy, France, Austria and Germany. They are peppered with iconic European landmarks, such as the Trevi Fountain and Spanish Steps in Rome, the Eiffel Tower and Notre Dame in Paris and Westminster Abbey in London.

In many parts of the United States, including Ross’s native West Virginia, segregation made recreational travel uncomfortable and arduous for African Americans, and very often dangerous.  No wonder, then, that Ross made the most of his opportunity to explore foreign cities because it provided Ross and other African American service members with a very different experience of walking down the street than they might have encountered at home.

Sergeant Cristina Frisby

Sergeant Cristina Frisby
Photo from the collection of Cristina Frisby. Veterans History Project, American Folklife Center

A Kansas native, Cristina Frisby also sought to document her military experience. Inspired by her father’s naval service, she was selected to attend the U.S. Naval Academy. Life at the academy was intense and rigorous, particularly for women. She got sick, and fell behind in her coursework, and eventually became so overwhelmed that she resigned from the academy. To her shock, her resignation prompted an inquiry into her sexual orientation and she was discharged for being gay. She eventually obtained an honorable discharge, but her exit from the Navy and the loss of her dream of military service left her depressed and adrift. She felt the agony of being denied her lifelong dream of military service because of who she was and her honesty in speaking about it. Her dedication to military service was so strong that she persevered, joining the California National Guard as a wheeled vehicle mechanic after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11. She deployed to Iraq in 2005 and served as the only woman in her tow truck unit as a recovery driver.  Her team assisted convoys, many hit by improvised explosive devices, and the job was intensely stressful. As a gay soldier, there was also the stress and loneliness of hiding her true identity. While her time in Iraq was intense and difficult, she expresses her pride in being able to fulfill her life’s dream of being a combat soldier.

Photo from the collection of Cristina Frisby. Veterans History Project, American Folklife Center
Photo from the collection of Cristina Frisby. Veterans History Project, American Folklife Center

Frisby’s rich collection includes not only her oral history, but also more than 300 photographs and a handful of home movies. Much like Ellis Ross, Frisby sought to capture her experience on film; she took pictures of her buddies and scenes she witnessed around the countryside. Her photos give a sense of everyday life, even of seemingly mundane elements such as her meals and other parts of her service experience that often go undocumented.  Unlike Ross’s snapshots, Frisby’s photos offer a sense of her experiences in combat—such as a close-up of a bullet hole in a truck window, or crumbled vehicles destroyed by IEDs.

Despite the fact that Irving Greenwald, George Pearcy, Ellis Ross and Cristina Frisby came from very different backgrounds and served in different circumstances, their collections all speak to the American experience of military service. Thanks to the contribution of these materials to the Veterans History Project, these personal narratives help to expand our understanding of war.