Yesterday was Memorial Day, a time for Americans to pause and consider the sacrifices of those who fell in war.

That’s the idea anyway, but as the “unofficial start of summer,” it’s become more a day to remember how to start the propane grill, remember to buy relish (the stuff still in the fridge from last year looks a little crusty), and bemoan the price of gas that has quadrupled the cost of getting to Grandma’s house.

I grilled some chicken last night, Grandma’s house is two thousand miles away so that was out, and we’re having relish brought in special from Chicago for us—if you don’t know what I’m talking about it’s because you’re not from Chicago. But I did actually pause to consider the men and women in uniform, too.

I got thinking about the times, while working at Wizards of the Coast, when I boxed up some extra copies of books that had been sitting around the office, and addressed them to various charities.

We used to get a lot of letter from penitentiaries, but also letters from soldiers and sailors, and organizations who supported them. Somewhere in some awful place like Afghanistan, right now, a soldier is reading a fantasy novel. If it’s one of the books I sent, that makes me happy. We once heard the story of a single threadbare copy of one of the original Dragonlance novels that had changed hands from soldier to soldier so many times it had become unreadable. We did our best to get them a new one.

Only a few months after 9/11 I put together boxes for the ship’s libraries of about half a dozen Navy vessels. My friend and former co-worker Richard Baker donated a few of his books, especially when he saw that he had actually been assigned to one of the ships on our list when he was in the Navy, years before.

At the height of the Iraq war, I got an invitation to participate in Ziggurat Con, a USO-supported gaming convention for soldiers stationed in Iraq. I wanted to go so bad I could taste it. I even talked R.A. Salvatore into joining me, but then the powers that be at Hasbro put the kibosh on it—insurance was un-doably expensive, or so I was told. I regret not fighting that at least a little harder. Maybe I was afraid to go after all.

I also just recently finished writing a war story for a Warhammer anthology, and started thinking about that, too, and about the many SF and fantasy stories I’ve written, edited, or read over my life in which war is a central theme. Some of those stories have been cautionary tales, others reveled in it. Some emerge from the Glory of War school, others from the school of War is Hell. Most of them, like all of the ones I’ve written, are entirely products of the imagination. I’ve never served in the military, never marched off to war.

I’ve affected characters’ voices that have been eager to join the fight, others shrinking in fear of the carnage, and a few waxing philosophical on the subject, but so far I’ve shied away from telling the story I hope everyone will eventually want to read, including those men and women who volunteered for a job that is all but guaranteed to put them in mortal danger.

Eventually, I hope, all those stories of the glory of war, the crucible of manhood, the brotherhood of the fox hole, will turn back to what one of the great science fiction characters, Yoda, once said: “War does not make one great.”

I hope the war in Afghanistan is over soon. I hope the rest of the Americans in Iraq come home. I hope we’re not stupid enough to march into Libya, or Iran, or anywhere else.

Eventually, we’re all going to have to come to grips with a simple fact, and that is that we will never truly be a civilized people until we finally understand that governments come and go, and no government is worth killing or dying for.


—Philip Athans



About Philip Athans

Philip Athans is the New York Times best-selling author of Annihilation and a dozen other books including The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction, and Writing Monsters. His blog, Fantasy Author’s Handbook, ( is updated every Tuesday, and you can follow him on Twitter @PhilAthans.
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