When I was growing up, I was semi-addicted to the novels of Herman Wouk, particularly The Winds of War and War and Remembrance. They did not glamorize warfare, but they did humanize it. For the generations who came of age long after World War II, books such as Wouk’s gave words such as Auschwitz and Midway and Leyte all the more meaning, for readers experienced them through the lives (and deaths) of the novelist’s characters. In the closing pages of his epic, Wouk mused on the tragedy of history, and on its redemptive possibilities. “The beginning of the end of War,” he said, “lies in Remembrance.”
Americans are not very good at remembering. Our endless capacity to focus on the future rather than the past is one of our great national virtues—and one of our great national vices. Though we hardly seem to note it, even in passing, we remain a country at war, with 86,000 troops in Afghanistan and 96,000 more in Iraq. This week marks the seventh anniversary of President George W. Bush’s speech marking what he called the end of major combat operations in Iraq; next week, Afghan President Hamid Karzai arrives in Washington nearly nine years after the beginning of the air war in the wake of the attacks of September 11.
In the following pages, we publish a special report on the how and why of warfare. Our hope is straightforward: that Sebastian Junger’s reportage, Evan Thomas’s essay on the psychological and cultural roots of the martial instinct, Steve Kroft’s thoughts on Vietnam, and Jessica Ramirez’s exploration of “war porn,” we can put America’s wars where they belong—at the forefront of our consciousness. As Wouk understood, the only way to make peace is to remember what war is truly like.