An old-fashioned book about battles past, before the technocrats came along to ruin the notion of courage under fire.
Indeed, writes British military journalist and historian Hastings, “this study will be of no interest to such modern warlords as U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, because it addresses aspects of conflict they do not comprehend, creatures of flesh and blood rather than systems of steel and electronics.” What characterizes the flesh-and-blood creatures whom Hastings studies is a particular kind of gumption in the face of mortal danger. To some, such as the impossibly accomplished Napoleonic soldier Jean-Baptiste-Antoine-Marcellin de Marbot, courage seems second nature; he was apt to jump into freezing lakes to rescue wounded enemies, incur multiple wounds and save his beloved emperor, all in a day’s work. To others, initiative under fire was as much an intellectual, learned process as a reflexive, physical one; Hastings offers an affecting portrait of Joshua Chamberlain, the Maine rhetorician who became one of the Union’s most outstanding officers during the Civil War. To still others, courage was a nearly unwilling and certainly unexpected response; none of his fellow officers could have guessed that John Chard, the hero of Rorke’s Drift, would have organized so brilliant and successful a defense. And to still others, bravery in grave danger seems almost a path to escape from an unhappy life under ordinary circumstances; its revisionism will perhaps displease diehard fans, but Hastings’s portrait of the woeful Audie Murphy, “widely perceived as a soldier fighting a war of his own,” is sensitive and revealing, and it explains much about the ways in which heroes allow logic and instinct to be overridden by something much more elemental—and dangerous.
Warriors are like the rest of us, Hastings observes—which makes the accomplishments of the great ones all the more unusual. Of interest to students of tactics and military history—and perhaps of psychology as well.