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News & Features » September 2013 » William Heffernan: On the Destruction of War and When Johnny Came Marching Home

William Heffernan: On the Destruction of War and When Johnny Came Marching Home

When Johnny Came Marching HomeI watched them come home year after year from Iraq and Afghanistan, young men and women no older than my own children, some missing an arm or a leg, some terribly disfigured by bomb fragments, all damaged emotionally by what they had seen, and I knew I had to write about it.

I chose the American Civil War as my vehicle, that great conflict fought over one man’s enslavement of another, a “good war” that had to be fought. I decided to write about three young men—boys really—who grew up in rural Vermont as close as brothers. How they eagerly went off to that war, off to fight for a noble cause, off to end slavery and save the nation from dissolution, and how that great and noble war accepted them greedily and then destroyed them.

The American Civil War claimed the lives of at least 620,000 young men; it left 476,000 wounded—many losing one or more limbs—and 400,000 missing in action. The fruits of the war were everywhere. It became common to see young men without one or more limbs in our towns and villages. Both sides had used their children as cannon fodder to advance political and economic goals, and the results stared back at us with all the horror we had unleashed. I asked myself if it was any different today. The answer seemed self-evident.

When I was a young man, we were enduring a war in Vietnam that would eventually claim over 58,000 American lives and nearly half a million Vietnamese. Those who opposed the war had a slogan. They said: “War is not healthy for children and other living things.” It was a gentle commentary for a not-so-gentle reality. Perhaps one that was too gentle for us to have taken seriously. We certainly have not done so.

I hope those of you who read When Johnny Came Marching Home will come to view war with a different vision, a vision that sees no glory in death and destruction, but rather sees it through the eyes of those forced to fight it, as an ultimate horror, for that is truly what it is.

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William Heffernan

WILLIAM HEFFERNAN, a three-time Pulitzer Prize nominee, is the author of eighteen novels, including such best sellers as The CorsicanThe Dinosaur Club (a New York Times best-seller), The Dead Detective, and Tarnished Blue (Edgar Award winner). Some of his additional works include When Johnny Came Marching Home, A Time Gone ByCityside, and Beulah Hill. He lives in Vermont.

Posted: Sep 16, 2013

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