On Service


Mouse Book Club

A year or so before its eventual publication, as I headed into the twilight of my own career in the United States Navy, I found myself engaged in a conversation with Mouse Books regarding what would eventually become the Service series. Mouse was well off the ground by that point and its creator, David, my fastest and oldest friend, was giving much thought to its future direction and content. The first question offered to me was a simple one--if you were going to choose a theme to curate, what would it be? My answer was immediate: Duty. I had been preoccupied with this idea for some time as I attempted to process my years of military service, and, as my background is in medicine and not literature, I could only speak to what I know.

But months later, as I sifted through literature on this theme - and despite assistance from David, Mouse’s superlative editor Brian, and my own father-in-law (a formidable Classicist) - I found myself facing a rather difficult problem. A primary constraint on Mouse is that selections are drawn only from literature in the public domain. Specifically, the public domain of the United States, which exercises particularly strict intellectual property laws. So much of the most nuanced and beautiful war literature, from Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls to Heller’s Catch-22, was off the table. David was keen on the Bhagavad Gita, but again, there were public domain restrictions that put the most accessible translations out of reach.


It wasn’t until I was weeks into my search, that I sat down with an Ambrose Bierce collection and finally cemented our first author. Bierce was everything I was looking for: a veteran with deep and profound wartime experience, with nuanced and powerful takes on this theme, and who wrote in an accessible and entertaining style. 

But here, too, a new problem arose. An existential challenge to Duty itself. Bierce, like most modern authors, is deeply critical of war, its institutions, and the leaders who propagate it. His stories, too, illustrate the inseparability of non-combatants from every aspect of human warfare. There was a larger audience I wanted to reach and greater diversity of thought I wanted to include. I realized the theme we needed to explore wasn’t Duty; it was Service.


Service conceived as the "what" to Duty’s "why." Service in all its many forms. Service as each individual member of humanity, reaching out of his or her own free will, to consciously give something of his or her self to what he or she believes is a greater cause.


In this collection, we see the contributions of three people, all deeply touched by war, to their greater causes. In Bierce, the honoring of the fallen dead merged with the unflinching criticism of warfare itself. In Nightingale, a philosophy and practical guide for caring for others that would reshape the practice of nursing. And in Tolstoy, the difficult moral and physical path of non-resistance that would change the course of mankind in the century that followed.

As I sit at the end of my portion of this project, uniform hanging ready for its final week of wear, I find myself humbled by the challenges of curating the work of these three great minds and awash in mono no aware - a wistfulness at the transience of life. I ponder the intersections between their service and mine. Like Bierce, I recognize that I have brothers and sisters who did not make it to this day and I wish fervently that their service will be remembered in the same fine light long after history has passed its judgement on their causes. I think of my daughter. I think of the opportunities she may have in life, the dignity she may enjoy, and also of the dignity of all the sick and injured in this world and I am thankful for Nightingale. Thankful for Nightingale and perhaps, as a man, conscious of times I have failed to promote that dignity but might still endeavor to. Lastly, I think of Tolstoy’s Christianity, of my own struggle to rectify my beliefs with the choices I have made and the world I have seen, and of the need, more than ever, to respect the service of those who choose a different path. To recognize that sometimes the bravest decision you can make is to turn the other cheek, even knowing that you may be struck again. I think of all of this and am grateful for the service of others in its many forms and am comforted that my own service is not ending, but is merely finding it’s new shape.

Erik Schaefer, United States Navy

Mouse Guest Editor
December 2018