Since the days of my youth, growing up in Belgium, I have been fascinated with war...
We had a German bunker in our neighborhood that we played “guns” in. We lived two miles from the Waterloo battlefield, with a giant mound and an iconic statue of a lion that is synonymous with the town. Inside one building is a giant panorama: a painting of the battlefield upon the wall of this vast, circular building. It was one of my very favorite pleasures to climb the steps up into the middle of that building and behold that epic clash... which they further accented with the carnage of battle, including mannequins of dead and dying horses and men, and sounds of cannons, muskets, horses, and battle cries.
Nearby was the very farmhouse where Napoleon spent his last night before the battle... and the wooden table upon which he planned his final act on the world stage.
Every year, our church took a ski trip to the town of Berchtesgaden, Germany. It was home to a US Armed Forces ski resort, and some military members of our church got a deal for the rest of us to ski there. They would stay in the General Walker hotel, a former SS barracks. We civilians stayed just down the hill in a rustic hotel with quite a story: the Hotel Zum Türken. This hotel had the distinction of being the very billet of Hitler’s personal security detachment... his house was a snowball’s throw down the mountain. Our hotel still had the old bunker system intact, and it was a creepy and mesmerizing thing to take that tour and snake down inside the ice cold chambers and view machine gun pits and the entrance to Hitler’s bunker. We were just underneath the ruins of his house.
Having a father who had been the Executive Officer of a Marine Corps Rifle Company, we visited many a war memorial and battlefield as children. I remember the haunting depths of walking the grounds of Dachau... the somber silence of beholding the beautifully manicured graves of the boys who died taking Normandy beach... meeting the mayor of Bastogne as a boy as we learned about the Battle of the Bulge... being taken around the battlefields of Operation Market Garden in the Netherlands, by an older member of our church who had served in the Dutch intelligence/underground during WWII.
A further benefit to growing up abroad was the influence of my English friends. Their history and heritage related to military actions run much deeper than ours. We were always squabbling over who did the most to defeat Hitler in WWII (turns out it was the Soviet Union). One massive benefit to me was the realization that there were other viewpoints out there worth considering. But I digress...
The other benefit of the British was a first rate toy manufacturing company called Airfix. They made the very best models and army men. This wasn’t some garbage made-in-Japan (back in the day, remember?) stuff... Airfix made the best replicas of units: the leggings, helmets, and machine guns particular to the Fallschirmjäger (the German airborne); the submachine guns and unique clothing of the Soviet Army; the helmets with camouflage netting and the jump boots of the US Airborne; and even the skis and tiny Edelweiss flowers of the German mountain troops. I absolutely loved it.
My favorite thing to do on a Saturday, while my brother was away and gave me the room to myself, was to lock the door and build giant fortresses with my books and mountains with my blankets. I would spend hours building a landscape and city, and then I would wage war with my various units in delight
The Bantam Publishing Company released a series of non-fiction, first person war books. It wasn’t limited to Americans, either. A British pilot who lost his legs before the war - and was able to jettison his prosthetic leg, trapped under the pedals in his shot down aircraft, and parachute to safety... a German Stuka pilot/tank hunter who had more kills and decorations than any other officer in the Luftwaffe... the insane story of combat and survival by America’s most decorated soldier, Audie Murphy... the memoirs of one George S. Patton... I would take my allowance money and purchase and gobble up these books starting in the fifth grade. They were the nexus of a war library I now have which numbers well over 300 books. I have collector’s books that are very expensive and out of print. I have huge, leather bound, autographed, first edition originals given to me by Stephen Ambrose during my days of working for him. And most treasured of them all is the very first book to come out of the box, which Stephen opened in front of me during my days as his last teaching assistant at the University of New Orleans. It is the first hardback copy of “Band of Brothers,” which he signed to me - and floored me with his generosity of spirit and comradeship.
“For David Campbell... my associate, assistant, and friend.”
I later took that book to the “Band of Brothers” reunion I attended in Denver, while working for Tom Hanks as the pre-production researcher on the very same HBO show... I had the veterans whose feats were chronicled in that book sign the inside page: Carwood Lipton, Forrest Guth, Jim Alley, Shifty Powers, Don Malarkey, Popeye Winn, and others...
For a kid who never had a grandfather - and they were both US soldiers in WWI - I connected to that profound sense of heritage that exists in military families, where generation after generation heeds the call to serve.
We did not grow up watching television. We spent our time outdoors, reading, or playing games that involved wits and imagination. But when gaming came along, I was dreadfully hooked. That began to pass with time, but in recent years, when I was alone in a hotel room or staying with friends while between tours, I began to game again...
I stumbled onto a brilliant game called “World of Tanks.” I have become utterly immersed into it, because it brought to life so many accounts I had read from my budding military history library. For all that people have enjoyed or praised me for my writing abilities, this was a direct byproduct of a great deal of reading... and war was the only thing that could truly hold my attention.
And this tank game - which is more detailed in terms of armor, chassis, radio range, and weak spots on every single vehicle - has given me a more profound appreciation for the men who waged war in these steel monsters than any book ever could. You fight 15 on 15 in a live, rotating setting. Those who don’t know the tactics or don’t work together get slaughtered. There is no re-spawn. There are no cheats. It’s 100% accurate. The newbies on the lowest levels can have a free-for-all. When you climb in tiers, you’ll be ridiculed and dropped for playing like a lone ranger. It involves strategy, innovation, and prediction.
The community of gamers is brilliant as well. There are young kids, but there are many older people playing - and from all over the world. One guy I play with regularly enough told me that his grandfather, who is in his 60s, has all of the best tanks - which can only come from lengthy, intelligent gameplay. I’ve become great friends with an older British guy living in Manchester. His father and uncle fought in WWII. Another friend is a brilliant player from Nürnberg, Germany. I’ve even rekindled a great friendship with one of my favorite former students, Josh Kuplesky. I instilled a love of WWI and WWII in him, and he has returned the favor by serving as my mentor as I climb up the ranks, when I have time to battle.
I’ve even discussed the World of Tanks at length with a client of mine for an upcoming tour. His father served in the 2nd Armored Division in WWII, and this guy is every bit the military history nerd that I am... He sent me two books for my own homework as I put this tour together, and what a treat it has been. We have discussed tactics, weaponry, and everything in between. We connected in the first conversation, and there was never any doubt that I would have the contract... 10 - 16 people for two weeks, retracing the steps of the 2nd Armored from Normandy to Bastogne and on to Magdeburg and Berlin.
Today, World of Tanks came up HUGE.
I was looking for photos to add into my online itinerary for this tour, which we both hope will end up enticing three more couples to join us. My client had informed me that his dad talked repeatedly about the town of Setterich, Germany. Of course, there was fighting all over a great deal of Germany, but there are not war memorials and remains of battle in many of these places... for good reason. Life goes on.
But when I did a search with Google for images of Setterich, I found a photograph of American tanks in action. And when I clicked on the link to the page where it was from, I hit the motherlode.
On a World of Tanks forum page was the story of the fighting in that very region, giving me quite a lot of detail and color to weave into my presentation to the group as we drive through this tiny little hamlet north of Aachen on our upcoming journey. Words cannot express the elation I get in surprising clients with such treasures of information and experience, and I forwarded it to him and received the most glowing response. He has been to the area over 25 times while running several international companies. He had gotten confused about the actions in that area and was going off of a fading memory of stories his dad had told him... He was overjoyed to read the article and put it all together again.
Maybe it means little to the outside reader, but for me, this sort of thing truly reminds me why I LOVE what I do for a living... And I am perpetually the teacher and the student, which is the greatest thing of all. It’s also great fuel to the fire as I prepare to form a separate company strictly devoted to intimate, upscale battlefield tours. I have simply been connecting with too many of these kinds of enthusiasts, many of whom are deeply enthralled by the stories of war. Hell, I was one of over 400 applicants at a law firm in San Francisco, and the senior partner of the firm saw on my resume that I had worked for Stephen Ambrose. We began talking military history. I met him outside the office building, after my initial interview, with a brand new copy of a favorite war book in hand to give him. I got the job.
I have led and continue to lead customized battlefield tours for retired doctors, CEOs, board members, and even one general. We have been in perfect sync the entire time... and I use my culinary knowledge, cultural appreciation, and extensive knowledge of military history to put together the ultimate experience, complete in every aspect. They know it, too. The last one of these I did, my three grateful clients gave me $700 in tip for the job I did.
It has always cracked me up to hear a sister or close female friend give birth to a boy and tell me how their would not ever play “war.” They insisted to me that they were going to raise them “better.”
One finally gave up, admitting to everyone on Facebook that her boys were using cardboard tubes and other random contraptions to pretend they were weapons... She surrendered.
War is in the male DNA.
If you study it, you’ll also not take it lightly and will quickly realize the massive costs and sacrifices...
But it’s in our blood to be captivated and ready for it.