- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 18, 2006


By Max Hastings

Knopf, $27.50, 384 pages


This is a book about heroism that the author kicks off with a caution that it is unlikely to be of interest to “modern warlords” like Donald Rumsfeld, secretary of defense, or Robert McNamara, one of his predecessors.

The book, Max Hastings emphasizes, is about “aspects of conflict they do not comprehend, creatures of flesh and blood rather than systems of steel and electronics.” It is a reminder that heroes are human.

Tartly, Mr. Hastings recalls that an American admiral in the 1960s expressed doubt that McNamara and his crew “have any morale settings on their computers.”

Yet in writing about warriors over the past 200 years, Mr. Hastings makes clear his awareness of their flaws as well as their valor, emphasizing that without war, they were indeed fish out of water.

He recalls English poet Rudyard Kipling’s lines, “It’s Tommy this an’ Tommy that, an’ “Tommy, fall be’ind,” But it’s “please to walk in front, sir, when there’s trouble in the wind.”

Mr. Hastings offers a poignant example of the plight of a hero in peacetime: World War II British Sergeant-Major Stan Hollis who charged German positions alone on D-Day and in subsequent combat. His commanding officer later reported wryly that it was easier for Hollis to get theVictoria Cross, Britain’s highest military honor, than to “get a decent job afterward.”

Hollis wound up running a pub.Yetthe same officer also noted that Hollis was the only man he met who “felt winning the war was his personal responsibility.”

The reaction of others tended to be a hope that somebody else would risk their lives in battle. And Mr. Hastings makes the point that admiration for physical courage on the battlefield has diminished over the past three decades as the “great game” of war increasingly has been questioned as stemming from “dubious nationalistic purposes.”

He relates the response of the late President John F. Kennedy when asked by a small boy how he became a war hero. “It was involuntary. They sank my boat,” was Kennedy’s self-deprecating reply.

Those of whom Mr. Hastings writes were indeed of that strange breed who walked in front when there was “trouble in the wind.” Like the French Baron Marcellin de Marbot who sought to follow Napoleon Bonaparte to military glory, bounding from battle to battle in an astounding career of high risk that he apparently relished.

“His gifts as a warrior might be described as those of the blessed fool of whom every army needs a complement to prevail on the battlefield,” Mr. Hastings comments. “He and his kind perceived the wars which ravaged Europe throughout their lifetimes merely as wondrous adventures.”

He draws a parallel between the attitude of the 19th-century Marbot and that of 20th-century pilots like Cecil Lewis who volunteered at the age of 17 for the Royal Flying Corps in World War I and wrote in his autobiography, “We lived supremely in the moment … . We were trained with one object — to kill. We had one hope — to live.”

That was also at a time when the odds on death for a pilot were rated higher than those facing an infantry officer, according to Mr. Hastings, who compares Lewis to Wing Commander Guy Gibson, the RAF pilot ace who led the famous “dam busting” attack on German industrial installations in World War II.

Gibson was killed later in the war and again the book raises the question of the peacetime role of such a man. As Mr. Hastings puts it, “The RAF used up Gibson long before his death, in the way that war uses up many young men, even those who are not maimed or killed.” Gibson’s tragedy, he suggests, was that of “a man who lived his simple life in one dimension, that of battle.”

Pursuing that theme, Mr. Hastings parallels Gibson’s life with that of American hero Audie Murphy, another man capable of such suicidal courage in combat that he became the nation’s most decorated soldier in World War II.

Yet neither the medals nor a mediocre film career based on his past heroism rather than his acting talent made Murphy a happy man. “It is difficult to be unmoved by the history of a man who contributed so much as a soldier yet found it impossible to parlay military achievement into rapprochement with himself,” observes Mr. Hastings.

However, Murphy and those of his breed were and are the kind of men who win battles, because the dark and bloody world of war is where they excel. Mr. Hastings quotes experienced American military officers writing of such men, “A few guys carry your attack and the rest sort of participate … . The average man doesn’t have an instinct for the battlefield, doesn’t relish it and will not act independently except under direct orders.”

They also noted that such men were not necessarily popular with their peers and Mr. Hastings’ research brought him to the same conclusion. “Few stars of the battlefield have been popular comrades. They command admiration but they are also feared and sometimes resented. Soldiers prefer to share a foxhole with men whom they recognize as made of the same frail stuff as themselves,” he writes.

Yet he adds that such “dragon slayers” are unlikely to become redundant, reminding that even the most civilized societies must take pride in a military heritage that secured not only their prosperity but sometimes their survival through the centuries. His book seems to bear the message that in the end, that was the unique niche that warriors carved in history.

Muriel Dobbin is a former White House and national political reporter for McClatchy Newspapers and The Baltimore Sun.

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