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This is a book of memories about war. Although it describes both good and bad, overall it portrays war as an arena of horror and tragedy. As one veteran noted, “No one wins a war. Even the victors lose a part of their humanity through the experience of war.” Although all such conflicts involve peculiar sets of circumstances, their worst aspects remain constant. Of the many questions the following reflections raise about war, perhaps the most wrenching is: Is there ever a time to kill?
The oral histories excerpted in what follows are part of an ongoing project on war supervised by Ray C. Hillam. Some of Hillman’s students conducted and transcribed more than one hundred interviews. Those interviewed included combat veterans of the first and second world wars, Korea, and Vietnam.
Rather than select a workable number of complete oral histories in their entirety, we drew from sixty of the transcriptions and arranged them thematically. This format offered two advantages: it allowed the most interesting parts of each reminiscence to be included, and it highlighted both the similarities and the differences in the [p.xii]experiences ofthe participants. We believe that the simplicity of the approach belies the impact of the result.
The first chapter, “Going to War,” explores the feelings of soldiers leaving home for military service. Many went willingly, prodded by a sense of patriotism, duty, or love of adventure. Others went only under compulsion. This chapter points to the concern of these men for their families and the often painful adjustment to the rigors and loneliness of military life.
As combat is the crux of war, so the chapters on “Combat on the Ground” and “Combat in the Air” are the core of A Time to Kill. These chapters include fascinating and often shocking episodes experienced by men who participated in some of the bloodiest battles of the twentieth century. The accounts they give describe fighting in frank detail, from machine gun battles between bombers and fighter planes in the cold skies over Europe to mass-wave attacks by Chinese troops in Korea to sudden ambushes in steamy Vietnam jungles. These vivid descriptions help the reader feel the emotions experienced by men in combat.
“Killing and Being Killed” attests to the terrible dilemma soldiers face on the battlefield. “Over There” explores aspects of war outside of combat and includes observations about life as servicemen abroad. As the accounts show, the environment of the battle zone exacerbated the misery they endured. They also point out the tragic effects of war on local people whose homeland is turned into a wasteland.
Among those interviewed are former prisoners of war. Their experiences are collected in “Captivity,” which includes accounts from German, Japanese, American, and North Vietnamese POW camps. Featured are veterans of the Bataan “Death March,” Germany’s Stalag 17, and the Hanoi Hilton.
The final chapter, “Leadership,” details the struggle to maintain composure under difficult circumstances. Soldiers who bore responsibility for others describe the awe [p.xiii]some weight of knowing their decisions meant life or death for themselves and their men.
We believe “A Time to Kill” serves at least three purposes.
First, it preserves the experiences of men who participated in events which have shaped our world.
Second, the accounts describe war not at the diplomatic or strategic levels but through the eyes of actual participants. They provide insight into the nature of war: them terror, brutality, confusion, heroism, adventure, strength of character and sorrow.
Third, “A Time to Kill” describes the religious faith of combatants under extreme stress—the majority of whom, in this case, are life-long members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (Mormon)—something lacking from many reminiscences of war. We do not, however, claim to have captured the entire range of religious experience in war.
This book does not explain how or why wars begin; rather it suggests why every effort should be made to avoid them.
We believe that understanding war helps prevent it. Hopefully, the following reflections will contribute to the prevention of future wars.