Re­veal­ing Amer­ica’s way of war in six em­blem­atic bat­tles

Af­ter the Battle of York­town, Gen. Ge­orge Wash­ing­ton was pre­sum­ably de­lighted to re­ceive the re­turn of some of his per­sonal prop­erty: two of his slaves who had fled to the Bri­tish and were now sent back to the forced-la­bor gu­lag he man­aged at Mount Ver­non

The Washington Post Sunday - - BOOK WORLD - bookworld@wash­ Gre­gory Crouch is the au­thor, most re­cently, of the World War II fly­ing story “China’s Wings: War, In­trigue, Ro­mance and Adventure in the Mid­dle King­dom Dur­ing the Golden Age of Flight.” RE­VIEW BY GRE­GORY CROUCH

Pop his­to­rian Ken­neth C. Davis, best-sell­ing au­thor of the “Don’t Know Much About” se­ries, tack­les Amer­i­can mil­i­tary his­tory in his new book, “The Hid­den His­tory of Amer­ica at War.” Us­ing “six em­blem­atic bat­tles” as lenses through which to ex­am­ine the na­tion’s mil­i­tary his­tory, Davis sets him­self a twofold slate of ob­jec­tives. Onone hand, he aims “to fill some of the gap­ing holes in our knowl­edge . . . and to tell the sto­ries that the school­books leave out.” Con­sid­er­ing the de­plorable state of the av­er­age Amer­i­can’s his­tor­i­cal knowl­edge, ac­com­plish­ing that goal is about as dif­fi­cult as step­ping over a side­walk crack. On the more se­ri­ous side, he prom­ises “to ex­plore how Amer­ica has gone to war; who has fought its bat­tles since the Revo­lu­tion; how each of Amer­ica’s wars has trans­formed the Amer­i­can mil­i­tary estab­lish­ment; and how the coun­try’s un­easy re­la­tion­ship with its armed ser­vices has shifted over more than 235 years.”

Those are big ques­tions that defy sim­ple an­swers. Mean­ing­fully un­rav­el­ing them is too tall an or­der for an in­ten­tion­ally light­weight his­tor­i­cal tour. How­ever, there is much to en­joy, learn and ap­pre­ci­ate in Davis’s “Hid­den His­tory,” and it should awaken many to the man­i­fold joys of read­ing his­tory.

Davis be­gins strong, with bay­o­nets fixed, in a trench out­side York­town, Va., on the dark, moon­less night of Oct. 14, 1781, among the hard­ened Con­ti­nen­tal Army vet­er­ans of the Rhode Is­land Reg­i­ment as they steeled them­selves to as­sault a pair of Bri­tish re­doubts an­chor­ing the de­fenses of Lord Corn­wal­lis’s be­sieged army. At 7 p.m., Alexander Hamil­ton, one of Gen. Ge­orge Wash­ing­ton’s aides, qui­etly is­sued the most sa­cred com­mand in the canon of in­fantry lead­er­ship —“Fol­low me!”— and led the rush for­ward. With a French noble­man, the Mar­quis de Lafayette, in the van of an­other spear­head, the Amer­i­cans and their French al­lies hacked into the Bri­tish po­si­tions. Boosted to the top of the en­emy-held wall, “the fu­ture first Trea­sury sec­re­tary du­eled sword-to-bay­o­net with the curs­ing Bri­tish. ... Hamil­ton fought for his life un­til his men joined him and drove the red­coats from the wall.”

Re­mark­able about the Rhode Is­lan­ders was that 140 of the sol­diers were black, “slaves who had been promised eman­ci­pa­tion in re­turn for en­list­ing,” and they served in an in­te­grated reg­i­ment. Racially mixed units wouldn’t be­come the norm in the U.S. Army for 167 more years, un­til Pres­i­dent Harry Tru­man man­dated mil­i­tary in­te­gra­tion in 1948.

Five days later, Corn­wal­lis sur­ren­dered, giv­ing Wash­ing­ton the victory that sealed the young repub­lic’s in­de­pen­dence. Less well known to mod­ern Amer­i­cans is the in­dis­putable fact that the tri­umph wouldn’t have hap­pened with­out the French navy, which thwarted the re­in­force­ment, sup­ply or evac­u­a­tion of Corn­wal­lis’s army by de­feat­ing a Bri­tish fleet in the Battle of the Vir­ginia Capes. “When the nor­mally stoic and re­served Wash­ing­ton ar­rived in Vir­ginia and sawthe an­chored French fleet blockad­ing [Corn­wal­lis],” Davis writes, “he ac­tu­ally jumped for joy.”

Among the spoils of victory, Wash­ing­ton re­ceived the re­turn of some of his per­sonal prop­erty — two slaves who’d fled to the Bri­tish. Ge­orge Wash­ing­ton, cham­pion of Amer­i­can free­dom, was pre­sum­ably de­lighted to send the runaways back to work at the forced-la­bor gu­lag he man­aged at Mount Ver­non.

That’s salty stuff. Af­ter York­town, Davis tells the sto­ries of the 1864-65 siege of Peters­burg, Va., the cli­mac­tic battle of the Civil War; the 1901 massacre of Com­pany C in Balangiga dur­ing the Philip­pine In­sur­rec­tion — the most “hid­den” of Davis’s his­to­ries, since it spot­lights a war about which most Amer­i­cans have ab­so­lutely no knowl­edge; the 1945 Battle of Ber­lin at the sav­age end of World War II in Europe— an odd choice for a book claim­ing to pro­vide in­sights into the Amer­i­can way of war, since the Soviet Red Army cap­tured Ber­lin with­out Amer­i­can par­tic­i­pa­tion; the Battle of Hué in the com­mu­nists’ 1968 Tet Of­fen­sive dur­ing the Viet­nam War; and the 2004 Battle of Fal­lu­jah in Iraq. In each case, his chap­ters build from anec­dote into broad his­tor­i­cal brush strokes that quote lib­er­ally from other his­to­ri­ans.

Although most of Davis’s hop­scotch his­tory is ba­si­cally sound, he could have pro­vided more per­spi­ca­cious strate­gic sum­maries. For ex­am­ple, when sur­vey­ing the Civil War’s 1864 Vir­ginia cam­paign, Davis takes Union Gen. (and fu­ture pres­i­dent) Ulysses S. Grant to task as a “butcher” for the ter­ri­ble losses his army in­curred dur­ing the bat­tles of the Wilder­ness, Spot­syl­va­nia and Cold Har­bor. “When Cold Har­bor was over, Rich­mond, seat of the Con­fed­er­acy, was still in Con­fed­er­ate hands,” Davis writes, mak­ing the cam­paign sound like a Con­fed­er­ate victory. It wasn’t. Rich­mond, for so long the goal of Union of­fen­sives, was an unim­por­tant ob­jec­tive. The cru­cial heart of the South­ern cause resided in Robert E. Lee’s Army of North­ern Vir­ginia. Noth­ing short of its ut­ter de­struc­tion would end the re­bel­lion. Grant knew that, and although his losses were truly ap­palling, Lee’s were as well, and through that bloody cam­paign Grant had trans­formed his army into a fear­some mil­i­tary Rot­tweiler with its jaws latched onto the body of Lee’s army, one that wouldn’t stop its fu­ri­ous shak­ing un­til it had torn the Con­fed­er­ates to shreds. At­tri­tion is the style of war­fare at which the United States has al­ways ex­celled.

Davis’s choice of the 1945 Battle of Ber­lin is par­tic­u­larly cu­ri­ous. He jus­ti­fies it as “hid­den his­tory” by claim­ing that “in post­war Amer­i­can his­tory books, the con­tri­bu­tion of the Soviet Union in fight­ing Hitler — along with the as­ton­ish­ing toll the war had taken on Rus­sia— was largely brushed aside,” patently ig­nor­ing popular works such as Wil­liam Craig’s “En­emy at the Gates” (1974), about the ti­tanic, tide-turn­ing battle of Stal­in­grad, and Cor­nelius Ryan’s “The Last Battle” (1966), a best­selling block­buster specif­i­cally de­voted to the Ber­lin battle. In a life­time of read­ing World War II his­tory, I can’t think of a sin­gle book that den­i­grates the out­size Soviet con­tri­bu­tion to Hitler’s de­feat.

Although Davis de­liv­ers six buoy­ant, fast-paced sto­ries, they shouldn’t be taken as gospel, for an un­for­tu­nate quan­tity of fac­tual er­rors, over­state­ments and care­less lan­guage mars the nar­ra­tive. It was Corn­wal­lis’s army be­sieged in York­town, not Gen. Henry Clin­ton’s; the Bri­tish navy wasn’t in­dis­put­edly es­tab­lished as the most pow­er­ful on Earth un­til its vic­to­ries in the Napoleonic Wars, two decades af­ter the Amer­i­can Revo­lu­tion, and at no point in his­tory have most ex­perts con­sid­ered the Bri­tish army the world’s most pow­er­ful; yes, Arthur MacArthur (Dou­glas’s fa­ther) won his Medal of Honor on Mis­sion­ary Ridge in Novem­ber 1863, but the ac­tion per­tained to the Battle of Chat­tanooga, not Chicka­mauga, which oc­curred the pre­vi­ous Septem­ber; the “mil­lion cu­bic cen­time­ters of con­crete” Davis claims went into the con­struc­tion of Hitler’s un­der­ground bunkers isn’t enough to pave a sub­ur­ban drive­way (surely he means a mil­lion cu­bic me­ters); on D-Day, Gen. Maxwell Tay­lor did not “parachute onto the beaches of Nor­mandy” — he landed near a vil­lage sev­eral miles in­land; the Ja­panese seized con­trol of French In­dochina (mod­ern Viet­nam) in 1940 and ’41, not 1945. They are too many, and in ag­gre­gate, they un­der­mine the book’s value.

Although “The Hid­den His­tory of Amer­ica at War” is bound to feed the danger­ous Amer­i­can con­vic­tion that a thim­ble­ful of knowl­edge qual­i­fies any in­di­vid­ual to is­sue sweep­ing pol­icy pro­nounce­ments, it does de­liver a num­ber of mean­ing­ful in­sights: “It is al­ways eas­ier to get into a war than get out of one” is para­mount among them. Un­for­tu­nately, the United States didn’t in­ter­nal­ize the san­guinary ex­pe­ri­ences of the Philip­pine In­sur­rec­tion, 1899-1902, deeply enough to pre­vent the care­less in­volve­ments in Viet­nam in the 1960s and, more re­cently, in Iraq, mis­takes which cost so many thou­sands of lives. As philoso­pher Ge­orge San­tayana wrote, “Those who can­not re­mem­ber the past are con­demned to re­peat it.”

THE HID­DEN HIS­TORY OF AMER­ICA AT WAR Un­told Tales From York­town to Fal­lu­jah By Ken­neth C. Davis Ha­chette. 406 pp. $30

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