Reviews by Bill Doughty
Two books I just finished -- The Last Stand by Nathaniel Philbrick and War by Sebastian Junger -- take us into combat, more than a century apart. Each is filled with rich characters, strong personalities and gruesome details about individual acts of courage in the face of death. Both books were published in 2010.
Philbrick’s book, subtitled Custer, Sitting Bull, and the Battle of the Little Big Horn, brings the West to life through the men and women who lived, fought and died in the Kansas, Dakota, Wyoming and Montana Territories.
Philbrick reveals the importance of good intelligence and command and control -- key to success in warfare over the centuries. George Armstrong Custer learned the challenges when he raced off to chase a buffalo:
“Only gradually did he realize that these rolling green hills possessed a secret. It seemed as if the peak up ahead was high enough for him to catch a glimpse of the regiment somewhere back there in the distance. But each time he and his horse reached the top of a rise, he discovered that his view of the horizon was blocked by the surrounding hills. Like a shipwrecked sailor bobbing in the giant swells left by a recent storm, he was enveloped by wind-rippled crests and troughs of grass and was soon completely lost... This same trick of western topography would lure him to his death on a flat-topped hill beside a river called the Little Bighorn.”
Philbrick’s carefully researched and documented book is packed with photos, maps and descriptions of the history of cruelty that unfolded in the wake of the Civil War and moved westward against Native Americans.
Custer was killed on June 25, 1876, just nine days before the United States Centennial.
In War, Sebastian Junger shows the hardships of combat from a remote outpost in eastern Afghanistan named for a beloved medic, Juan “Doc” Restrepo. Junger describes the sounds, smells and feel of combat and the long lulls before and after.
He smacks readers with sudden, shocking violence. With the forced detachment of a journalist, he reveals the life and psychology of the soldiers he came to know and care about while on assignment for Vanity Fair.
A reward comes at the end of the book when he puts his observations in the context of history and evolutionary biology.
What motivates warriors? Why is a certain size group most effective -- 30-50 for hunter-gatherer family tribes and 150 for communitiy groups, comparable to platoons or battle companies, respectively.
It is more about buddies and loyalties than big ideals and politics. A powerful motivator is simply not wanting to let your teammates down.
A fitting quote for this Independence Day introduces Book Two, entitled Killing. The quote is attributed to Winston Churchill and possibly George Orwell:
“We sleep soundly in our beds because rough men stand ready in the night to visit violence on those who would do us harm.”
Restrepo, a documentary in association with National Geographic, filmed by Junger and Tim Hetherington, earned the 2010 Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival.
PFC Juan Restrepo