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Americans at War: Eyewitness Accounts from the American Revolution to the 21st Century [3 volumes]
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Introduction “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.” With these words, written in 1953, L. P. Hartley began his novel, The Go-Between.1 Hartley’s words describe the challenge confronting anyone who tries to comprehend the course of history. Historians formally address this challenge by utilizing a rigorous research method. They believe that information gleaned from primary sources provides the basis for understanding history. Pri- mary sources offer direct, firsthand evidence about an event, person, or object. Primary sources include a variety of categories ranging from historical and legal documents to statistical data, audio and video recordings, and, in the most recent times, Internet communications. Eyewitness accounts enjoy a special position among primary sources. They describe something that a person has seen and experienced. This collection provides a compilation of eyewitness accounts of Americans in combat from our first national war, the Revolutionary War, to the ongoing war in Afghanistan. Like every historical source, eyewitness accounts must be weighed and evaluated. Few people have the unflinching courage to describe their personal failures at a dramatic time. Within this collection, readers will find some contributors who possess this courage. Notable among them is William Funkhouser, who participated in the D-Day landing on June 6, 1944. His refreshing candor depicts a common soldier’s range of emotion and experience as he struggles to survive on fire-swept Omaha Beach. Funkhouser’s honesty contrasts with many firsthand accounts that blur the distinction between fact and fiction. While such accounts are not deliberately featured in this collection, it is important to consider why eyewitness accounts can be unreliable or misleading. The world has experienced many great generals whose dazzling displays of military leadership changed the course of history. There have been only four Great Captains an elite group of men whose combination of inspiring leadership and consummate tactical and strategic skill rank them signifi- cantly ahead of all others: Alexander the Great, Hannibal, Genghis Khan, and Napoleon Bonaparte. Napoleon viewed history with great suspicion. He referred to it as “agreed upon fiction.” Napo- leon addressed the question of how posterity records history one year after his final battle at Water- loo in 1815. He framed the question by asking, “What is history?”: It must be admitted that it is very difficult to obtain absolute certainties for the purpose of his- tory. . . . Historical fact, which is so often invoked . . . is often a mere word: it cannot be ascer- tained when events actually occur, in the heat of contrary passions and if, later on, there is a consensus, this is only because there is no one left to contradict.2