Why We Fight

War Stories – by Gordon Korman, Scholastic Press, 2020

Trevor Firestone is a typical twelve-year-old, who loves video games and argues constantly with his father. Actually, he is not that typical.  His parents having divorced, he lives most of the time with his mother, stepfather and two half-sisters, but when he stays with his Dad, the other member of the family is his paternal great-grandfather.  Jacob Firestone, or G.G., as he calls him, is a World War II veteran, a crusty ex-infantryman with no patience for euphemisms when describing his wartime experiences: “He didn’t pass anything; he died. Why do we have to soft-pedal it?…First you’re alive and then you’re not.”  He also lacks patience with modern technology, although his great-grandson’s fascination with simulating World War II through that medium is a central part of Trevor’s life. Trevor’s father, Daniel, has actually been raised by Jacob, his grandfather.  This relatively unusual family constellation allows the author to center on a direct relationship between a member of the “greatest generation” and a preteen.

The novel reveals a compelling mystery. Traveling to Europe so that Jacob can receive a long overdue medal from the French town which he helped to liberate during the war, Jacob and Daniel learn that some young residents of the town are attacking him as a traitor, posting messages on the internet about his alleged complicity in having contributed to the deaths of those whose lives he was charged with saving.  Underlying this plot is the essential conflict between Daniel, who is disturbed by what he sees as his grandfather’s glorification of war, and Trevor, who believes that his father fails to understand the magnificent sacrifice of soldiers who fought the Nazis.

While Daniel’s concern about his son’s constant immersion in a virtual world of war seems justified, after a point I became impatient with his apparent lack of appreciation for the historical context of one particular war, World War II. (Daniel is a history teacher by profession.)  His philosophical pronouncements about war as a terrible way to resolve conflict are certainly true in a general sense, but they came to seem as naïve as Trevor’s excitement about everything connected to his grandfather’s service.  (The title of this post comes from director Frank Capra’s series of documentaries produced by the United States Department of War as effective propaganda; while these films clearly simplify the truth, they make it clear that the result of the war would have existential consequences.) Chapters in the present alternate with scenes from Jacob’s participation in basic training and the subsequent battles for which no soldier could have been emotionally prepared.  A colorful cast of characters, reminiscent of classic movies about the era, advance the story in a moving and believable way.  Yet the reality of Nazi aggression and grotesque crimes against humanity is almost completely absent. 

The most difficult part of the author’s approach for me, was one odd and glaring omission.  Jacob Firestone, by his name, is clearly Jewish.  The author dedicates the novel to the memory of his own grandfather, Sergeant George Silverman.  Aside from one brief mention of a cemetery with “endless rows of immaculate white crosses and the occasional Star of David,” and one comic reference to a soldier named Ben Schwartz whose mother sent him a salami from Brooklyn, the Jewish identity of the main characters never enters the story. Gordon Korman has no obligation as an author to approach the story from this specific angle, but it is wholly improbable that Jacob Firestone would have been unaware of the dangers he faced as a Jewish American G.I. were he to be captured; some Jewish soldiers even elected to omit the “H” for Hebrew from their dog tags, for this reason. In addition, although Daniel, unlike his son, is totally aware of “why we fight,” in the general sense, Jews in America, by 1944, knew of Nazi genocide against their brethren in Europe, even if the horrific magnitude of their atrocities did not come to light until after the war.  Towards the end of the book, Jacob Firestone meets a German soldier whose life he had spared in a moment of humanity, causing the American to feel “reborn” by his own act of mercy.  During the commemorative ceremonies, the German shows Jacob photographs of his family. As if in vindication of his grandson, Daniel’s, ideas, Trevor expresses joy that, due to his great-grandfather’s decision, “all those lives suddenly became possible.”  Given that two out of three European Jews were killed, never to have descendants, I personally found this facile conclusion to be grossly insensitive. Although War Stories raises interesting points about generational differences, I would recommend that the author do more research before approaching this topic again in his work.

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