In Combat: Reflections on Men at War (J-G Gray)

Published in 1959 and become a classic in the United States, the testimony of the philosopher Jesse Glenn Gray on World War II was only published in French in 2012, published by Tallandier. This book offers a new angle of view on war, oscillating between war stories and philosophical reflections on the attitude of the soldier in combat.

The author: a philosopher-soldier

Born in 1913, Jesse Glenn Gray learned one day in 1941 that his doctoral thesis on Hegel had just been accepted. That same day, he was informed of his integration into the army, just a few months before the United States entered the war. In 1943, he joined North Africa, as a member of an infantry division, before participating in the liberation of Italy and then of France, exercising the function of intelligence officer. Intelligent, brilliant man, specialist in Hegel but also actor and direct witness of the violence of the Second World War, he retranscribes daily in his notebook the significant events of the war. So he decides, a few years later, when he has again joined the ranks of philosophers, to write his own testimony. His objective is not to proclaim himself a war hero or to highlight his feats of arms, but to bring a new angle of view on the war, relying both on his own notes, but also on the writings of other soldiers or on theoretical works on war.

Between testimony and philosophical reflection

In the 1967 reissue, the work was accompanied by a preface by Hannah Arendt in which she attempts to describe this work as a testimony and not a philosophical work. The work is thus constituted: each chapter contains an idea, a feeling experienced by the soldier in war, enriched with extracts from his own notebooks, letters or other testimonies, then the author comes to bring a theoretical and philosophical reflection. from these writings. In this sense, this work combines both war narrative and philosophy, contributing to the development of a new and original vision on war.

A typology of men's attitude to war

Jesse G. Gray admits the astonishment he felt on reading his notebooks, in view of a certain insensitivity or even fear that can be felt in the tone of his writings. War "squeezes the opposites", the soldier being able to both feel a deeper excitement, which can succeed complete boredom.

The author attempts to explain the reasons for man's attachment to war: aesthetics of combat, emergence of a feeling of brotherhood, enjoyment of destruction. He also comes to question the relationship between war and love, engaging in a true typology of love in time of war.

Central theme, that of the relationship between the soldier and death. Here again, the author gives himself up to a typology of the soldier facing death: some are only waiting for this to put an end to their extreme suffering, others, out of naivety, are convinced that they can only escape. this sad fate and are noticed by their recklessness, helping to galvanize the troops.

The figure of the enemy is also discussed, seen as a real construction conveyed by the media and propaganda. Surprisingly, the hatred against the enemy seems stronger at the rear, where the imagination is overflowing, than at the front, where we discover the gap between images and reality.

Guilt is also a subject of questioning, in a context where the individual tends to take responsibility for his actions, should the soldier feel guilty when he obeys the most cruel orders?

Finally, the author, based on his previous analyzes, concludes his work with a reflection on the future of war, oscillating between optimism and pessimism.

The opinion of History for All

Combining philosophical reflections and the incorporation of accounts and testimonies from the 2nd World War, this work offers a new perspective and an enriching reflection on, or rather the manners of acting in war. The author studies the attitude of the man at war in all its complexity, and if the tone and the use of concepts specific to philosophy can sometimes confuse the reader, this work nonetheless remains a testimony of a high quality. It can also prove to be a very useful tool for any secondary school teacher, at a time when school programs favor an approach to war as it is experienced by combatants.

In Battle: Reflections on Men at War, by Jesse Glenn Gray. Tallandier, January 2012.

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