This article appeared in the December 2006/January 2007 issue of The American Spectator. To subscribe to our monthly print edition, click here.
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)
ACADEMIA TENDS TO IGNORE military history and condescend to those who write it. It occupies a fugitive place in the curriculum, offered as 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, has 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 professor 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. Crocker 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 and 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 love it so!”) — but 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 bound to win mighty victories over their Italian and German enemies — since they, the Americans, were descended from the braver and more adventurous ancestors who had emigrated to America.
His native aptitudes for war apart, the military hero in American history is commonly a reluctant practitioner of the business for which his profession has trained him: Robert E. Lee (subject of an earlier, brilliant Crocker biography), Sergeant Alvin York, Omar Bradley — supremely grateful for peace, and only Lee among them with a true vocation for soldiering. Sergeant York, yielding reluctantly to arguments that he had better answer the draft and report for duty, astounds his mates in the sodden gloom of the Argonne, in 1918, by methodically killing dozens of Germans (with a single shot rifle) and capturing more than a hundred others. When Omar Bradley was preparing new obstacle courses and firing ranges at Fort Benning, in 1940, he called on Sergeant York to come down and advise him how to do it most usefully.
THROUGHOUT MODERN MILITARY HISTORY in the West the native genius for improvisation, adaptability, and initiative makes the American soldier nonpareil — as does his democratic heritage — as Victor Davis Hanson has memorably celebrated: soldiers who know what they are fighting for and who love what they know, once roused, together make the most formidable soldier in the world. The best of their leaders, men compassionate and disinterested at once, wield their armies like brutal instruments, understanding by instinct that sudden overwhelming force applied without let is the best and quickest means of achieving victory. Compare U.S. Grant’s order to Sherman, in 1864 — “Get into the interior of the enemy’s country as far as you can, inflicting all the damage you can against their war resources” — to the pitiable premises, and strategies, followed in the early years of Vietnam, in which commanders, following the misbegotten instructions of their master Robert McNamara, undertook to “send a message” to Ho Chi Minh, by gradually escalating the intensity and geographical range of Rolling Thunder. Crocker quotes, approvingly, the exchange between an American colonel, Harry Summers, with a North Vietnamese officer, a couple of years after the war ended. The American reminded his former adversary that “You know you never defeated us on the battlefield”; and the North Vietnamese responded, “That may be so, but it is also irrelevant.”
The purpose of military history is to instruct. Towards the end of Don’t Tread on Me the author adduces the current war in Iraq as an enterprise pour encourager les autres: other prospective adversaries seeing what American arms now bring to the battlefield will be reluctant to follow the banners of al Qaeda, Hizbollah, etc. “There is no reason that America’s longer-term strategy of training Iraqi troops to do the job cannot work. All that stands in the way…is the anti-war party in the West.” The point is arguable, but Colonel Summers’s exchange would seem to embody a present and future truth. The American public, in a time of instant messaging, of all news all the time, of quick solutions and declining patriotism of the kind that drives citizens to volunteer for military service, will not long sustain wars without plain evidence that they are attaining palpable success. In a different context President Roosevelt told an adviser (the president arguing for an Anglo-American invasion of northwest Africa in 1942) that the public “must be entertained.” Successful campaigning, more elusive now than in 1940, demands faster and plainer results, and at less human cost. Victory’s adversaries now include many in whose behalf victory is being sought.