Experiences of War in the Twentieth Century

Michael T. Ryan and Daniel Traister


Thursdays 4:30-7:10 P.M.
Edgar Fahs Smith Collection in the History of Chemistry, 6th floor, Van Pelt-Dietrich Library

Department of Special Collections, 6th floor, Van Pelt-Dietrich Library
215 898 7552 (MR); 215 898 7088(DT)
fax: 215 573 9079 (both)

ELECTRONIC ACCESS: (e-mail) and (e-mail)
Traister's website



"You may not be interested in war, but war is interested in you." The twentieth century offers many instances of that truism. Its wars, to all intents and purposes, have been endless. But large numbers of wars are not new in human history. What has changed in this century is the scale of devastation modern warfare permits.

Not only armed but also civilian populations are at risk, and on a grand scale. By mid-century, it had became possible to destroy entire cities through "conventional" as well as nuclear weapons. At such places as Dresden, Tokyo, Hiroshima, and Nagasaki, such possibilities were realized. Increasingly, war also came to involve genocidal attacks on civilian populations. Armenians, Jews, Sikhs, and various Slavic and African populations are only among the more prominent victims of such war-related crimes against humanity in this century. By century's end, it has become possible to envision a war leading to the extinction of all human life.

In addition, war as waged by modern nation-states has come increasingly, during this century, to involve mass mobilizations. Millions of men and women have experienced combat who, in earlier eras -- even very bloody ones -- might have escaped knowledge of war altogether.

What did war mean for those who bore the burdens of battle? Why do men and women serve in combat, and how does the experience of war reshape purpose and patriotism? How have soldiers remembered and recounted their experiences of war? How has war been imagined in literature? How has literature registered the impact of war during this century?

Drawing on memoirs, autobiographies, and fictions, this course will consider these and other questions about war in the twentieth century. The course is not a history of war but a retrospective tour of the ways in which ordinary, and not-so-ordinary, men and women have dealt with war, and the ways in which war has dealt with them. In this respect, World War I was a major turning point: no conflict before or since has provoked a comparable body of literature. World War I has occupied a dominant space in the twentieth-century imagination. By comparison, the literatures relating to World War II and even Vietnam are small in number and surprisingly unremarkable as imaginative witnesses. Why should this have been the case? How do we account for the different ways in which those caught up in them have represented different wars? And finally, how do we remember these wars today? What role do they play in our collective consciousness?

The literature of war in our century is, like the experience of it, extensive. Texts come primarily from Anglo-American writers (but are by no means limited to them). They tend to deal with combat rather than, say, war-related experience (as in the Armenian or Jewish genocides), but not always. Readings include some works about war and its literature.


Read this section now to avoid surprise, disappointment, or horror later.

The instructors expect students to read, in addition to the assigned works themselves, some historical and critical works. A few are among the books required for this course. Recommended additional readings of this kind appear in the syllabus below. These are recommendations. They are not covert requirements. Nonetheless, they are listed here because the instructors hope you will read as many of them as you can.

The single best resource for readers of English-language works that use -- as even these modern books occasionally will use -- unfamiliar words is the Oxford English Dictionary, available to Penn students through the Library's website, as well as in its various printed forms.

Film versions of some of the books read in class exist, some good, some even very recent (e.g., Malick's just-opened Thin Red Line). Films that do not revisit already-published books -- Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan from this past summer is a good example of this kind -- are also extant. Many will repay your close attention (the two just mentioned among them). How film versions of books differ from the books on which they are based, and how films view wartime experiences, are both questions that your viewing should engage. The more you have time to watch the merrier -- so to speak -- and both instructors will have numerous suggestions.

This class will work through discussion rather than lectures. Your attendance will make a difference in its success -- and your attendance and participation in your grade. Ground rules: talk; interrupt; open your mouths. Be polite; do not let politeness get in the way of making your points.

The course requires one short paper, of about 5 pages, due January 28. Students will be asked to direct a class, whether through providing a paper for discussion or some other means to be decided in conjunction with the instructors. A final paper, about 15 pages, is due May 3. No final examination will be scheduled. The instructors reserve the right occasionally to give brief unannounced written quizzes or exams, although our inclination is to do so only if it appears that people are not keeping up with the reading.

NOTE: Your final paper should consider any aspect of the books we have read during the semester and ought also to deal with at least one related book or film not otherwise read in this class. The more of the recommended historical and critical writing you can read, the better able will you be to choose and write about a topic for this paper intelligently. DO NOT CHOOSE A TOPIC FOR OR WRITE THIS PAPER WITHOUT FIRST DISCUSSING YOUR PLANS WITH THE INSTRUCTORS. Follow MLA format rules (which you can consult at Van Pelt Library's Reference Desk if you don't already know them) in its preparation.

Death (preferably yours) is the only acceptable excuse for lateness.

In general, the instructors appreciate good writing. They will look with disfavor upon essays, whether short or final papers, that are poorly written. Sloppy writing normally means sloppy thinking.

This course meets on Thursdays from 4:30 to 7:10 P.M. in the Henry Charles Lea Library on the sixth floor of Van Pelt-Dietrich Library. We may occasionally reschedule or relocate in order to accommodate the use of videotapes in class.

As has been noted at the top of this syllabus, the instructors' offices are in the Department of Special Collections (also on the sixth floor of Van Pelt-Dietrich Library). You can reach them there by telephone (215 898 7552 [MR] and 215 898 7088 [DT]) or in person at that location. Call before showing up. You can communicate with them as well by e-mail at and at Traister has a website.


NOTE: Some material will be distributed in photocopy ("bulkpack"). Books to be purchased are available at the Pennsylvania Book Center, newly located at the corner of Sansom and 34th Streets.


  1. Bertolt Brecht, Mother Courage and Her Children (Grove/Atlantic)
  2. Paul Fussell, Doing Battle: The Making of a Skeptic (Little, Brown)
  3. Robert Graves, Good-bye to All That (Doubleday Anchor)
  4. Joseph Heller, Catch-22 (Simon & Schuster)
  5. Ernest Hemingway, A Farewell to Arms (Simon & Schuster)
  6. Masuji Ibuse, Black Rain (Kodansha)
  7. James Jones, The Thin Red Line (Delacorte)
  8. Ernst Junger, Storm of Steel (Howard Fertig)
  9. Robert Kotlowitz, Before Their Time (Doubleday, if available) -- UNAVAILABLE --
  10. Chaim Potok, The Book of Lights (Fawcett)
  11. Erich Maria Remarque, All Quiet on the Western Front (Fawcett) -- SUBSTITUTE --
  12. Siegfried Sassoon, The Complete Memoirs of George Sherston (Faber) -- UNAVAILABLE --
  13. Eugene B. Sledge, Jr, With the Old Breed: At Peleliu and Okinawa (OUP)
  14. War Poetry: An Introductory Reader, ed. Simon Featherstone (Routledge)
  15. Rebecca West, The Return of the Soldier (Penguin)


The list of possible additional readings that follows literally just scratches the surface of the vast amount of materials currently available. If there are specific topics you want to follow more closely than these suggestions permit, speak with the instructors.

  1. Michael C. C. Adams, The Best War Ever: America and World War II (Johns Hopkins) -- useful study of WW2's nature and its impact on the USA
  2. Articles of War: A Collection of Poetry about World War Two, ed. Leon Stokesbury -- you can easily find similar volumes for Vietnam
  3. Barbara Ehrenreich, Blood Rites (Holt) -- "theory" of war and human nature by a biologist and political writer
  4. Paul Fussell, The Great War and Modern Memory -- probably the best book on the literature of war ever written in English
  5. ----------, Wartime: Understanding & Behavior in the Second World War (OUP) -- a debunking book about WW2
  6. "The Good War": An Oral History of World War II, ed. Studs Terkel (Pantheon) -- first-hand testimony elicited by one of the great interviewers of our time
  7. Dave Grossman, On Killing (Little, Brown)
  8. Richard Holmes, Acts of War: The Behavior of Men in Battle (Free Press)
  9. Samuel Hynes, A War Imagined: The First World War and English Culture (Atheneum)
  10. ----------, The Soldiers' Tale: Bearing Witness to Modern War (Penguin)
  11. John Keegan, The Face of Battle (Penguin) -- the experience of combat for the people involved in it; treats Agincourt, Waterloo, and the Somme
  12. Ernest Mandel, The Meaning of the Second World War (Verso) -- a Marxist economic analysis (don't let the word scare -- or sway -- you)
  13. The Penguin Book of First World War Poetry, ed. Jon Silkin (Penguin)
  14. Joachim Remak, The Origins of World War I (Dryden) -- a short background to the European pre-World War I diplomatic and military world
  15. Keith Robbins, The First World War (OUP) -- useful short general history
  16. Elaine Scarry, The Body in Pain: The Making and Unmaking of the World (OUP)
  17. Kali Tal, Worlds of Hurt: Reading the Literatures of Trauma (CUP)


  1. Week 1 -- January 14
    Introduction to the course

Highly recommended initial readings include

Try to read both books within the first 2-3 weeks of the semester.

  • Week 2 -- January 21
  • Week 3 -- January 28
    World War I
  • Short paper 1 is due today: TOPIC: What does prose allow Graves to do in his memoir that the poets, as you read them, cannot do? What, in turn, do the poets do that Graves does not?

  • Week 4 -- February 4
  • Week 5 -- February 11
  • Week 6 -- February 18
  • Week 7 -- February 25
  • Week 8 -- March 4
    World War II
  • Week 9 -- March 11

  • Week 10 -- March 18
  • Week 11 -- March 25
  • Week 12 -- April 1
  • Week 13 -- April 8
  • Week 14 -- April 15
    World War II (continued); Korea
  • Week 15 -- April 22
  • Final paper due May 3. Consult with instructors before beginning this project!

    APPENDIX: Representative online resources for study of twentieth-century wars

    Online resources are extremely numerous. Not all are equally trustworthy. (NOTE: The instructors will welcome suggestions of sites that students find especially useful but which are not already listed below.) Some very few of the more reliable sites include:

    1. The Great War and the Shaping of the 20th Century (a PBS documentary website)

    2. World War I: Trenches on the Web

    3. World War I literature

    4. Henri Barbusse, Under Fire: The Story of a Squad, trans. Fitzwater Wray (in French, Paris, 1916; in English, 1917)

    5. James Rogers McConnell papers (a site at the University of Virginia that remembers a dead American aviator)

    6. Military History: World War II (1939-1945) (from the Information Resource Centre, Canadian Forces College, Department of National Defence, Canada); see also Canada and World War I

    7. The Visual Front: Posters of the Spanish Civil War (from the Southworth Spanish Civil War Collection, Mandeville Special Collections Library, University of California, San Diego; catalogue by Alexandra Vergara, with Kevin Ingram, Enrique Sanabria, and Theresa Smith). See also:

    8. The Dutch Interbellum and Occupation Bibliography

    9. Holocaust and Antisemitism links (from Maven: The Virtual Know-It-All)

      German soldiers brutalizing a Jew

    10. In Our Own Backyard: Resisting Nazi Propaganda in Southern California, 1933-1945 (An On-Line Exhibition with Materials Contributed by California State University, Northridge, University Library, Department of Special Collections and Archives; The Museum of Tolerance; University of Southern California Libraries, Department of Special Collections)

    11. "'Remembering the GI Bulge': An exhibit honoring the students who attended S.U. under the GI Bill" (from Syracuse University Archives and Records Management)

    12. Vietnam Veterans Home Page

    13. The Vietnam War Newsgroup

    14. Vietnam Resource Collection

    You can send Traister e-mail concerning this page at

    Return to Daniel Traister's Home Page.