Volume IX, Number 1, Spring 2013

"Review of Diana C. Gill's How We Are Changed By War" by Zoltán Cora

Zoltan Cora is an Assistant Professor at the Institute of English and American Studies, Faculty of Arts, University of Szeged, Hungary. His main areas of research are 19th–20th British and Hungarian social history, especially the interwar period (1918-1939), as well as classical and modern aesthetics with a focus on the sublime. His publications cover these areas. Among several research projects, he participates in the Comparative History Project organised by the Central European University, Pasts Inc., and he has recently been one of the organisers of the International Conference on Terror(ism) and Aesthetics hosted by the University of Szeged. In 2011 he defended his PhD dissertation entitled “A szociálpolitika válaszútjai Magyarországon: A mintakövetés lehetőségei és kényszerei (1938-1950)” [Hungarian social policy at crossroads: possibilities and necessities of pattern finding (1938-1950)]. He is currently working on the publication of his PhD dissertation as a monograph. Email:

How We Are Changed By War: A Study of Letters and Diaries from Colonial Conflicts to Operation Iraqi Freedom
Diana C. Gill
New York: Routledge
ISBN-10: 041587310X
ISBN-13: 978-0415873109

Diana C. Gill, who has already earned her PhD in English Studies and works as independent scholar, had personal as well as professional motivations to write this book. As a teenager, the author discovered an old volume of poetry worn with age among her mother’s books. In the marginalia, her great-great-uncle has “written notes to himself” during his military service in World War I. “Sometimes he wrote about liking a particular poem,” adding that “he mostly “wrote about feeling lonely and missing home” (1). The dual presence of loneliness and hope brought on by war and a soldier’s need to record his feelings motivated her to research other wartime personal documents. The result is the book How We Are Changed By War: A Study of Letters and Diaries from Colonial Conflicts to Operation Iraqi Freedom.

The book contains seven main chapters, each with three or four sections in which Gill presents a diverse collection of excerpts from letters and pieces of handwritten, printed, and e-mailed correspondence arranged topically. For example, Chapter 2 takes up eagerness for conflict and “enthusiasm for war’s dangers;” Chapter 5 investigates spectatorship, while Chapter 7 studies war’s aftermath. The chapters involve letters from early modern American history to the late 20th century, including documents from the Indian, Revolutionary, Civil, Spanish, and Mexican Wars. However, the main focus of this volume is on the 20th century wars, including the World Wars, the Korean conflict, the Gulf War and the war in Iraq. The scope of Gill’s study spans from local colonial conflicts to global ones such as the World Wars or Operation Iraqi Freedom.The letters included in the book are sometimes coupled with quotations from a diverse range of thinkers, such as Cotton Mather, Nietzsche, and Jerome Bruner. In this study, Diana C. Gill investigates besides the wartime diaries and letters of soldiers and sailors, also a number of letters from the families and the journalists back home.

This complex examination of personal documents aims to map how a war can “unmake” identity. She says, “I chose wartime as the frame for this discussion because war represents the ultimate danger to identity (both personal and national)” (3). What does the author understand by identity? She interprets it as an “entwined relationship,” as the soldier’s story being the hidden “history of war” (3). Hence, Gill asks the following questions: “First, what does Western culture mean by personal identity? Second, what is the relationship of society to the identity of the individual? Third, how do ‘factual’ stories, such as those written in diaries and correspondence, partially defuse war as a disrupter of both American culture and its members?” (4). These complex questions serve to elucidate the theoretical framework the author applies. First of all, she understands identity as an oppositional construction by using Martin Heidegger’s notion of the unreal, according to which “an individual perceives others only as they relate to the individual’s selfhood and reality” (5). The unmaking of one’s identity opens a possibility to accommodate to new circumstances―in this case, war― through various means, including language. That is why Gill endeavours “to clarify [the] relationship between language, reality, and personal/national identities” in wartime correspondence.

In the new circumstance of the war, language occupies a prominent place, because in traumatic situations, language can have disruptive but also restorative powers. “Readers should recognise the very human need to escape into a story as one’s tactile world descends into turmoil” (10), Gill notes and explains this idea further when she talks about the physical danger of an armed confliuct. Here, Gill adds that “[in] face of physical danger, the urge of individuals to feel psychologically larger and less vulnerable to destruction becomes compelling [… where] a hedging of identity [is necessary] so that they don’t feel so inextricably tied to the endangered body” (12). When there is no physical escape, this sentiment can only happen through virtual, imaginative ways of writing.

Letters sent home establish a communion, where soldiers can enlarge their identity and are able to revisit a physically and existentially safe place. Therefore, a letter can be regarded as an answer to a shock after which the subject seeks a “restorative environment […] in which the individual creates for him or herself a space to feel coherent and integrated in the face of everyday and (in this case) more life-threatening traumas” (13). However, as opposed to ‘restoration,’ these letters offer not only solace, but are the representations of the disruption as well; some wartime letters illustrate why soldiers fail to communicate with their relatives, as the following example shows: “[The Island] smells of death and is barren and desolate… the men sit about listlessly. Nobody is in any sort of mood for kidding… I would rather not write anymore today, and I will not mention any more about Iwo Jima in any later letters because I am sick about my friends who died, and so please just tell me about things at home, and don’t mention the campaign anymore,” Gill quotes Lt. T. Edwards’s letter to his parents in Chapter 4 part entitled “A Growing Estrangement” (117-118)

The discussion of language’s disruptive power is linked to the examination of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) symptoms that often afflict soldiers. In this context Gill remarks that “[a] soldier’s dialogue of violence frequently reveals his internal sense of powerlessness that, in turn, feeds the potential for more aggression as he progressively feels more powerless” (141).

The author also observes that despite the differences in the historical particularities of various wars (and whether sending a letter home, or committing thoughts and feelings to paper or screen is easy or not) all soldiers experience a profound self-transformation and this is only visible due to their urge to write their feelings and thoughts rooted in a shared human desire to record one’s bearing. Gill’s examination of the letters, diaries and their contexts is, in this sense, extremely thorough and thought-provoking.

The work is also excellent when it discussed the testimonies from civilians, from spouses and parents waiting to hear from their beloved ones. It is particularly interesting to look at the roles of civilians as ‘spectators’ of war together with the “psychological price” they pay in this very role (154). Gill’s careful selections from the diaries and letters offer fascinating insights into the experience of the writers, with special regard to the given contexts pertaining to American culture.

However, the personal documents under scrutiny are not organised in chronological order; instead, they are grouped together on the basis of their themes. This can be a serious shortcoming since letters of various wars are often cited together to make a point, but this strategy can easily obscure the considerable differences in eras a century or two apart (and in this respect the work is not exactly a historical work). Perhaps fewer examples with a less informal and literary approach would have served the purpose better. An additional problem is that the author handles “truth” merely on the basis of the binary opposition of factuality vs. narrative reality and is less interested in her statements as true or not true parts of historical knowledge. Furthermore, when the author finally starts to match all possible ideas and interpretations around the studied material, she is occasionally reluctant to make a firm stand of her own position.

In terms of style, Gill’s work is frequently verbose where it is not necessary, though she can be truly eloquent. The quotes from scholarly works―concerning Foucaldian identity and Csíkszentmihályi’s concept of flow ― add weight on occasion, although, sometimes they appear without giving the wanted real substance to the topic. Although the list of secondary sources are disparate and numerous, Gill’s attempts to make connections between them are seldom convincing. Consequently, the argumentation of this book is often redundant and overinterpreted. Moreover, there were a lot of unexplained notions in the text, such as the “psychological borders of a country” (7) alongside a lack of lucid methodology besides the arrangement of the correspondence under scrutiny.

Nevertheless, this book is a good mirror of the sense of self in times of danger, with the primary sources as examples. According to the author, experiences and feelings committed to language force one to reflect upon oneself and upon all life-threatening incidents that become commonplace in war. She says that “[A]s a catalyst for change, war unarms more than it arms soldiers and civilians. It makes them vulnerable to that strange mixture of egoism and anguish as unexpected change threatens to sweep all before it” (274).

In spite of its weaknesses and shortcomings, the book has not only current relevance but also a lasting value. To reflect on letters of people over several centuries is in itself astute in the age of TV news flows, online streaming and the transient world of Facebook and Twitter. The focus on the similarities and differences between various documented ways of identity formation as a result of a war throughout almost three centuries of American conflicts is both fascinating and commendable. And last but not least, the book itself is a moving ‘letter’ written to the author’s great-great-uncle.

Despite its minor flaws, Gill wrote a critical text and a engaging read for anyone interested in history, American culture, and personal writing.