Reluctant Warriors

By Bunting, Josiah | The American Spectator, December/January 2006 | Go to article overview

Reluctant Warriors


Bunting, Josiah, The American Spectator


Reluctant Warriors Don't Tread on Me: A 400-Year History of America at War, From Indian Fighting to Terrorist Hunting by H. W. Crocker III (CROWN FORUM, 440 PAGES, $27.50)

Reviewed by Josiah Bunting

ACADEMIA TENDS TO IGNORE military history and condescend tit those who write it. It occupies a fugitive place in the curriculum, offered LIS an "elective." if appropriate professorial expertise is available. The discipline's thin cohort of teachers is rarely allowed onto the tenure track, and even more rarely granted permanent appointments. There are a few exceptions. King's College. London, lias an undergraduate concentration in military history; Oxford its Chichele Professorship in the History of War; the University of Calgary-Calgary!-a strong program: a few others. Occasionally a pro fessor earns a reputation both for meticulous scholarship and compelling narrative, a reputation of such consequence that his university is proud to proclaim his presence on the faculty: James Mcpherson, late of Princeton; James Robertson at Virginia Tech. But these men are exceptions.

The reasons are not far to seek: few career academics have ever served in the armed forces-the country has had an all-volunteer military since 1972, meaning no one under 55 has been called into service against his (or her) will; most have opposed American uses of force reflexively. And that societies must still sustain armies to fight their wars, and that men and women willingly engage in warfighting, appalls them. It is something they'd rather not think about. This purblind attitude is the rough equivalent of a medical school's unwillingness to teach the causes and treatments of, say, pancreatic cancer.

For the lay public, to whom many professors also condescend, military history retains its ancient, and ripe, fascination. In Barnes & Noble, in Borders, in Blackwell's. military history bookshelves sag with new titles and reissued classics. The best practitioners of the craft-Alex Danchev, Victor Davis Hanson, John Keegan. Brooks Simpson. Geoffrey Perret-command wide and appreciative audiences. They are successors to-for example-Cecil Woodham-Smith. Elizabeth Longford (Wellington's biographer). Shelby Foote; and before them Sir John Fortescue, Sir Winston Churchill, the incomparable Douglas Southall Freeman. And though neither David McCullough nor Joseph J. Ellis (nor David Hackett Fischer) would consider himself a military historian, in writing about their subjects' military phases and accomplishments, they manage the rare achievement of combining exhaustive research gracefully deployed in engaging, propulsive, narrative.

To their number should now be added H.W. C rocker III. whose new military history of the United States. Don't Tread on Me, is a magisterial, scintillating review of America's arms, armies, and singular soldiers: from the days of Captain John Smith's unrequited labors in Jamestown, to make soldiers of the "effete young blades who... (expected to) make a leisured living off the land and achieve easy riches by discovering gold or effortless wealth," to the sublime gallantry of Navy SEAL Neil Roberts, who fought his personal and private Alamo in Afghanistan, dying hard ami alone near the end of winter in 2002. Crocker's argument is that America is a "country of practical, independent-minded people shaped by the frontier, an ambitious and well-meaning people who naturally carved out an empire of liberty."

Americans are very good at war: yet those of its soldier-heroes who have sought war and actually liked it are few. Their genius for war is usually disclosed in battles and campaigns not of choice but of grim necessity. There are exceptions-Patton for one ("Oh God. I do love1 it so!")-hut not many: Patton. who proclaimed that "all real Americans love to fight." reminding his soldiers on the eve of the American invasion of Sicily that those among them of Italian or German descent were hound to win mighty victories over their Italian and German enemiessince they, the Americans, were descended from the braver and more adventurous ancestors who had emigrated to America. …

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