In 1937, a young poet and novelist named James Neugass went to Spain to serve as an ambulance driver with the Abraham Lincoln Brigade. He came home with a handwritten manuscript recalling his experiences, but died of a heart attack in 1949 at the Sheridan Square subway station in New York City before it could be published. Now it is in print, thanks to the New Press and the Abraham Lincoln Brigade Archives, and it can take an honorable place alongside the best memoirs of the Spanish Civil War.
War is Beautiful: An American Ambulance Driver in the Spanish Civil War is a beautifully written book with an ironic title. Edited by Peter N. Carroll and Peter Glazer, my colleagues at the Abraham Lincoln Brigade Archives, the book presents vivid descriptions of the terror and exhaustion of driving an ambulance in wartime alongside deeply humane meditations on the experience of war.
Carroll and Glazer wisely edited lightly, and Neugass' prose shines. "Why did the wounded lie so still and so seldom cry out?" he asks. "Why did the sight of an old woman at midnight far from any town hobbling her way towards the Rear affect us more than rows of dead?"
Yet for all of Neugass' eloquence on the Spanish Civil War, his service was a shrouded presence in his postwar life. Shortly before his death, Neugass' novel Rain of Ashes was accepted for publication by Harper and Brothers. The editors note that a biographical statement he wrote for them did not mention serving in the Spanish Civil War. Perhaps, in the climate of the Cold War, he didn't want to be labeled a subversive--a fate common to members of the Lincoln Brigade, with its communist origins. His own son Jim, upon reading the manuscript, was introduced to a side of his father that he did not know.
The publication of War is Beautiful restores James Neugass, ambulance driver in the International Brigades, to his family and to all who care about the history of the Spanish Civil War. Read it to understand how a veteran could write, "We killed naturally and with constant gnawing desire to kill more and more, but we hated death and war and we could never manage to think of ourselves precisely as soldiers."