Hemingway’s Men at War: Anthology of an Obsession

Ernest Hemingway’s 1,100-page military anthology, Men at War (1942)— published in his lean decade, between For Whom the Bell Tolls (1940) and Colonel Cantwell’s bitter memories of war in Across the River and into the Trees (1950)—has received very little attention. Its contents and the introduction Hemingway wrote reveal not only his wide knowledge of military history but also how his personal experience and literary taste influenced his attitude toward war.

Hemingway had always been fascinated by war, which provided the inspiration for much of his best fiction. But Men at War was unusual, and gave him little satisfaction and insufficient control over the finished product. On Aug. 25, 1942, just after completing it, Hemingway complained to his old friend Evan Shipman, then serving as a private in an armored unit: “I have edited an anthology of best writing on War from Caesar and Xenophon down.… It goes over a thousand pages and was a god­awful job.” Even the introduction he was asked to write had problems. Crown publishers “insisted on an Introduction of ten thousand words and over. I can say anything I want to say in from 200 to 2000 so Introduction probably not so good.”

Despite his reservations, Hemingway’s 20-page introduction is one of his most important essays, discussing the purpose of the anthology, the best entries, and his personal concepts of truth and courage in war. He dedicates the book to his sons, aged 11 to 19, and, directly addressing the reader, sheds light on the biographical context:

This introduction is written by a man, who, having three sons to whom he is responsible in some ways for having brought them into this unspeakably balled-up world, does not feel in any way detached or impersonal about the entire present mess we live in. Therefore, be pleased to regard this introduction as absolutely personal rather than impersonal writing.… The book … will contain truth about war as near as we can come by it, which was lacking to me when I needed it most.

Personal factors did indeed influence the making of Men at War. The suicide of his father in 1928 damaged Hemingway’s view of his father’s manliness as well as his own self-image. His need to prove his courage in combat propelled him toward violence and self-destruction. Five serious accidents and concussions ruined his health and affected his thinking and writing.

Ernest Hemingway, American Red Cross volunteer,
recuperates from wounds at the ARC Hospital in Milan,
Italy, in September 1918. (Wikimedia Commons /
Public domain)

Winston Churchill, whose entry in Men at War described his 1898 cavalry charge at Omdurman in the Sudan, declared “nothing in life is so exhilarating as to be shot at without result.” But Hemingway, dangerously involved in five wars, had been hit by shell fragments while serving with the Red Cross on the Italian front in the Great War. He had reported from the Greek-Turkish War, the Spanish Civil War, and the Second Sino-Japanese War. He even claimed to have hunted German submarines in the Caribbean, soon finding himself a grenade-throwing combatant while reporting the war against Germany. Unhappily estranged from his third wife, Martha Gellhorn, who had left him in order to report on the war in Europe, Hemingway felt compelled to follow and compete with her. Such was his obsession with war and war reporting.

He recalls in the introduction his naïve teenage belief in the Great War: “When you go to war as a boy you have a great illusion of immortality.” But his having been wounded in that war led him to quote from his favorite speech in Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Part 2, Act 3. Alluding to Eric “Chink” Dorman-Smith, whom Hemingway met in Milan in 1918, he writes:

[I had] the feeling of having a permanent protecting talisman when a young British officer I met when in the hospital first wrote out for me, so that I could remember them, these lines: …‘a man can die but once; we owe God a death … and let it go which way it will, he that dies this year is quit for the next.’

Insisting on the truth about war, Hemingway praises (without naming) the great German General Erwin Rommel:

One of the great advantages, in the tank warfare in Northern Africa, which the Germans have held, is that their Commander in Chief has always been up with the tanks to see that his orders have been carried out.

But Hemingway is also conscious of the costs associated with heroics: “The Axis would be happy and contented if we made no criticism and simply gloried in the valor of our soldiers, no matter what results were produced by that undeniable valor.” And in the anthology itself he included two entries from Richard Hillary’s Falling Through Space (1942), with its shocking descriptions of being horribly burned in his airplane cockpit in September 1940 and of the series of ghastly operations on his charred face. (After his book was published and praised, and while he was still an invalid, the reckless Hillary was allowed to fly. In January 1943, he lost control of his plane and died in a crash.)

The publisher does not identify the author called “Private 19022” as the Australian writer Frederic Manning and does not state that in Her Privates We (1930)—an expurgated version of Manning’s The Middle Parts of Fortune (1929)—the soldiers’ realistic use of obscene words had been deleted. But Hemingway admires Manning as a truthful touchstone and moral guide, and calls his work

… the finest and noblest book of men in war that I have ever read. I read it over once each year to remember how things really were so that I will never lie to myself nor to anyone else about them.

It’s surprising, after capturing Hemingway and exploiting his prestige, that Crown did not defer to his literary reputation and superior judgment. He had to fight for the inclusions and exclusions he wanted, and write a much longer introduction than he thought necessary. It was a tedious exercise that left him scant time for more important work.

Hemingway referred to Nat Wartels, the Crown chairman, when he told Max Perkins, his editor at Scribner’s, about the difficulties of the project and his relief that it was done:

It is a fine feeling to have that Wartels book finally off our hands, but I wish you would have thought of it so that we could have done it together. It would have been a much more pleasant experience and we could have made a pot of money. I don’t know whether it could have been a better book because we fought it out with them on all questions of taste.

In October, Crown brought out Men at War, priced at $3, with a large first printing. The book sold well and, by December, 1942, reached first place on The New York Times bestseller list.

Hemingway got useful advice about the contents from Perkins, Col. Charles Sweeny, and Marine Lt. Col. John Thomason. Hemingway met Sweeny, an adventurer and soldier of fortune, in Constantinople in 1922, and they remained friends for the next 40 years. Sweeny’s book Moment of Truth: A Realistic Examination of Our War Situation—a title chosen by Hemingway—appeared too late, in 1943, to be excerpted in Men at War. Thomason was Chief of Naval Intelligence for Central America in World War II, when Hemingway was living in Cuba. He did not know Thomason well and called his Fix Bayonets (1926) “very juvenile,” but included from it and Lone Star Preacher (1941) four excerpts, no doubt strongly recommended by Thomason himself. The next most-featured authors, each with three entries, were Tolstoy, Hemingway himself, and the American journalist Marquis James.

The anthology contains 63 authors and 82 entries of fiction, history, and memoirs, but no poetry. It has works from the Hebrew Bible, Greek, Latin, French, Spanish, and German; from Xenophon and Caesar through Stendhal, Victor Hugo, Guy de Maupassant, and William Faulkner. There are accounts of the attack on Pearl Harbor and the American triumph in the Battle of Midway in June 1942. Hemingway also included the work of several friends: the war correspondent Alan Moorehead, the playwright Laurence Stallings, and the satirist Dorothy Parker. The other women authors in the book were Charlotte Yonge, Mary Johnston, and Agnes Smedley.

The book also included many unknown or lesser known authors, which worked against the boast of its subtitle, “The Best War Stories of All Time.” In fact, a great many of the minor works, two of them anonymous, should have been deleted and replaced by superior pieces such as Isaac Babel’s Red Cavalry (1926), Robert Graves’ Good-Bye to All That (1929) and George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia (1938).
The publisher thanked the editor and anthologist William Kozlenko for devising a plan that was actually very poor and should have been rejected. The selections are carelessly arranged by eight vague, overlapping themes. Admitting that the structure was weak, Hemingway writes in the introduction:

The material has not been grouped chronologically but is rather placed under certain arbitrary heads and divisions.… Since all the selections deal with war, many of them would fit as well under one head as under another.

The second section, for example, confuses the reader by leaping wildly from the American Civil War to naval action in World War I to the history of Rome, back to the Civil War, then the biblical David and Goliath, the Spanish Civil War, the medieval King Arthur, the infantry in World War I, Thermopylae in 480 BC, back to the American Civil War, and so on—all randomly collected under the ambiguous heading “Danger and Courage.”

There’s no real difference, for example, between “War is the Province of Uncertainty” and “War is the Province of Chance.” The last section heading, “War is Fought by Human Beings,” is obvious and otiose. To make matters worse, each section begins with a long quotation from Carl von Clausewitz’s On War (1832), the gist of which is not directly related to the section contents and is too general to be effective.

The anthology would have been greatly improved if the entries had been arranged chronologically, according to the dates of the battles, and if all works by the same author were placed together instead of being separated by unrelated entries. As Perkins told Hemingway, “those two Tolstoi pieces have almost perfect unity.” And if the text were much shorter and more readable, there could have been brief introductions to each author and entry, with publication dates and (where applicable) names of translators.

The anthology appeared just before the crucial Allied victories—the British at El Alamein in North Africa, the Russians at Stalingrad—that turned the tide of war at the end of 1942. At the time Men at War was compiled, the prospect of victory seemed bleak. Insisting on the value of truthful reporting, Hemingway wanted the book to explain the current war, to increase morale, to inspire the will to fight, and to be a “good weapon.”

“We must win this war at all costs and as soon as possible,” Hemingway exclaimed, and suggested what must be done: “The greatest danger that the allied cause faces is the possible disillusion of the people of China and Russia in regard to their allies. China must have aid in greatly increasing amounts.” Hemingway wanted to include André Malraux’s great novel Man’s Fate (1933) but explained that he could not negatively portray a wartime ally. Malraux’s hero is

… waiting to be burned alive with some two hundred of his comrades after the suppression by Chiang Kai-shek of a Communist revolt. This is a marvelous piece of writing and would have been included in this book if we had not been at war and if Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek had not been one of our allies.

Hemingway’s most shocking statement, meant perhaps to excite hatred of the enemy and exact revenge, was made before medical experiments in the Nazi extermination camps became known. He suggests that after the Allied victory, the best way to avoid future wars with endlessly belligerent Germany

… can probably only be done by sterilization. This act can be accomplished by an operation little more painful than vaccination and as easily made compulsory. All members of Nazi party organizations should be submitted to it if we are ever to have a peace that is anything more than a breathing space between wars.

This half-serious statement, along with his criticism of the Germans and praise of the Russians, was deleted in Cold War reprints.

Hemingway’s lifelong credo was that “a writer’s job is to tell the truth. His standard of fidelity to the truth should be so high that his invention, out of his experience, should produce a truer account than anything factual can be.”

Despite the value he places on truth, Hemingway dismisses the element of high-minded persuasion:

The part this book can play in the winning of this war is to furnish certain information from former times.… This collection of stories, accounts, and narratives is an attempt to give a true picture of men at war. It is not a propaganda book. It seeks to instruct and inform rather than to influence anyone’s opinion. Its only and absolute standard for inclusion has been the soundness and truth of the material.

Hemingway’s lifelong credo was that “a writer’s job is to tell the truth. His standard of fidelity to the truth should be so high that his invention, out of his experience, should produce a truer account than anything factual can be.” He uses this standard to justify excluding the work of his old friend John Dos Passos, the novel Three Soldiers (1921). Hemingway criticizes it as untruthful: “on rereading it did not stand up. Try to read it yourself and you will see what I mean. The dialogue rings false and the actual combat is completely unconvincing.”

In the introduction, Hemingway also discusses three of the finest selections from a literary—as well as a historical—point of view. Stendhal was part of Napoleon’s army that invaded Russia in 1812, and the retreat from Moscow inspired his fictional description of Napoleon’s 1815 defeat in The Charterhouse of Parma (1839). Hemingway writes:

The best account of actual human beings behaving during a world shaking event is Stendhal’s picture of young Fabrizio at the battle of Waterloo.… You will have seen a small piece of war as closely and as clearly with Stendhal as any man has ever written of it. It is the classic account of a routed army.

Tolstoy fought as an artillery officer in the Crimean War in 1854. Disputing Tolstoy’s belief that historical forces are greater than powerful leadership, Hemingway notes that in War and Peace (1869), Tolstoy

… took one of the few really great generals of the world and, inspired by a mystic nationalism, tried to show that this general, Napoleon, did not truly intervene in the direction of his battles but was simply a puppet at the mercy of forces completely beyond his control. Yet when he was writing of the Russians, Tolstoy showed in the greatest and truest detail how the operations were directed. His hatred and contempt for Napoleon make the only weakness in that great book of men at war.

Hemingway includes the entire text of Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage (1895), which, at 90 pages, is by far the longest entry in the book. Stendhal and Tolstoy had first-hand experience in war; Crane had not. Hemingway addresses this:

Crane wrote it before he had ever seen any war. But he had read the contemporary accounts, had heard the old soldiers, they were not so old then, talk, and above all he had seen Mathew Brady’s wonderful photographs. Creating his story out of this material he wrote that great boy’s dream of war that was to be truer to how war is than any war the boy who wrote it would ever live to see. It is one of the finest books of our literature.

Ernest Hemingway with professional soldier
Col. Charles T. Lanham in Germany, 1944.
(Wikimedia Commons, Public domain)

But Hemingway’s most important statement concerns what Samuel Johnson, in Rasselas, called “the dangerous prevalence of imagination.” Hemingway believed that thinking, anticipating fears, and morbid imagining about being captured, wounded, or killed could be fatal in battle. A soldier is more likely to survive in battle by combining careful training with instinct and impulse. Hemingway adopted this idea from two classic novels that were published shortly before and after he was born. As Red Badge protagonist Henry Fleming goes into combat, Crane writes:

A little panic-fear grew in his mind. As his imagination went forward to a fight, he saw hideous possibilities. He contemplated the lurking menaces of the future, and failed in an effort to see himself standing stoutly in the midst of them.

Then in Joseph Conrad’s Lord Jim (1900), Captain Brierly describes Jim as having too much imagination just before he commits a cowardly act and jumps from his ship:

The matter was no doubt of the gravest import, one of those trifles that awaken ideas—start into life some thought with which a man unused to such a companionship finds it impossible to live.

Echoing these beliefs in the introduction, Hemingway expresses one of his most significant ideas:

Cowardice, as distinguished from panic, is almost always simply a lack of ability to suspend the functioning of the imagination. Learning to suspend your imagination and live completely in the very second of the present minute with no before and no after is the greatest gift a soldier can acquire.

In his chapter on Hemingway in The Wound and the Bow (1941), Edmund Wilson shrewdly observed: “his heroes are almost always defeated physically, nervously, practically: their victories are moral ones.”

Top image: Ernest Hemingway and his third wife, Martha Gellhorn, with unidentified Chinese military officers, Chungking, China, 1941. (Ernest Hemingway Photograph Collection, John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum / via Wikimedia Commons, Public domain)

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