I certainly never imagined, when I was scratching out romantic stories in the margins of my algebra notes as a teenager, that I would one day write a book about war. I grew up surrounded by military people, bombarded with heroism and war stories. In the narrow-minded way of children, I assumed that these stories of violence in the name of defense were part of the fabric of everyone’s upbringing. So for me, this did not make for very interesting reading.
It was not until I was much older, and pursued a military experience of my own, that I realized the truth. Not only are these stories not universal, they are deeply controversial. Finding the underlying motivation involved in warfare is far more important than the strategy or tactics of warfare.
In my brief time at the United States Air Force Academy, we learned a quote from John Stuart Mill, which became the inspiration for my title:
“War is an ugly thing, but not the ugliest of things: the decayed and degraded state of moral and patriotic feeling which thinks that nothing is worth a war, is much worse. …A man who has nothing which he is willing to fight for, nothing which he cares more about than he does about his personal safety, is a miserable creature who has no chance of being free, unless made and kept so by the exertions of better men than himself.”
I fundamentally believe that every individual is obligated to search his or her own soul—examine these questions: What are you willing to fight for? What is worth more than your personal safety?
Each person will certainly come to different conclusions. It is the very nature of war, in fact, that at least two strongly differing viewpoints will emerge. As a society, however, there are certain things that, throughout history, have inspired us to rally behind a common reason for fighting. This is what I have examined in Exertions of Better Men and what I will continue to investigate in my next novel.
So, I suppose I can say to my 14 year old self, listen a little closer to those stories, to those heroes. On the surface, they may seem overloaded with bravado and righteous indignation. But there is a subtext to those accounts that, while never spoken aloud, is the most intriguing and thought-provoking story of all.