FOR CAUSE & COMRADES:
WHY MEN FOUGHT IN THE CIVIL WAR
By James McPherson
Oxford Univ. Press
237 pp., $25
THE COMPANY THEY KEEP: LIFE INSIDE THE US ARMY SPECIAL FORCES.
By Anna Simons
The Free Press
240 pp., $25
The mid-19th century saw the greatest written expression of personal experience in United States history.
Oregon Trail pioneers by the thousands recorded the strength and drive it took to leave home and family, the tough and often tragic consequences that resulted. Most of this record was left by women.
A few years later, the Civil War between North and South, a terrible and costly conflict, brought an even greater outpouring of experiences and feeling.
For Cause and Comrades: Why Men Fought in the Civil War, by Civil War historian James McPherson, examines letters and diaries to see what it was that made hundreds of thousands of men on both sides go time and again onto the killing fields.
In a sense, the Civil War was like all war, and the soldier here dealt with the profound and very personal things all combatants must: the sight of death, the question of killing, the fear of cowardice in the face of fire. But there were distinctions as well.
"A substratum of truth underlies the stereotype of the antebellum South as a society with a profound sense of honor (public reputation) while Yankees were driven by conscience (a private compact with God)," McPherson writes.
For those on both sides, there were reasons - opposition to slavery, preservation of the union, defense of homeland and states' rights - that were unique as well.
"It is impossible to understand how the huge volunteer armies of the Civil War could have come into existence and sustained such heavy casualties over four years unless many of these volunteers really meant what they said about a willingness to die for a cause," McPherson concludes.
When the fiance of a recruit from Michigan begged him not to go he wrote: "No Jenny ... while your happiness is as dear to me as life, duty prompts me to go ... my country first ... home and friends next ... Jenny what would friends be to me if I had no country?"
Still, the deepest motives were personal and often heartbreaking.
"My manhood is involved in a faithful and fearless sticking to the job until it is finished, or it finishes me," a Confederate officer with Stonewall Jackson wrote to his wife. He was killed at Chancellorsville.
As thorough a job as McPherson has done, the work is unmoving given the subject. It is more a tally than a reckoning, pulling brief and usually anonymous quotes from scores of sources to illustrate the author's conclusions about motive.
Focusing on a few soldiers (and their families) - painting a fuller picture of individuals - would likely evoke more of an emotional response from the reader.
But considering the enormity of the effort (and especially its cost) one must agree with McPherson's conclusion:
"Whether Americans today would be willing to make similar wartime sacrifices is unanswerable. One hopes that it will remain unanswered."
The Green Berets, Special Forces, originated during the 1950s as an insignificant element in an Army that, traditionally, had relied on the American abundance of manpower and resources to field large, standardized units.
But the cold war, with its involvement in the third world, changed everything. Unlike the Army as a whole, the Special Forces did well in Vietnam. They acquired a unique mission - training and advising in the third world - and attracted ambitious, high-quality volunteers eager to prove their worth.
The various books about the forces follow the normal path of military history, of battles and leaders, brave exploits, and tenacious defenses. As an academic anthropologist, Anna Simons takes a different tack.
In The Company They Keep: Life Inside the US Army Special Forces, her focus falls on the ordinary soldier; on personal relations at the squad level; on bonding, togetherness, and the other elements fostering the unity and cohesion which, far more than firepower and hardware, shape success or failure for small units.
Simons follows them closely through exercises in the pine woods of Fort Bragg, N.C., observing, interpreting, assessing.
It's an ambitious and imaginative idea. How does it emerge? Unfortunately, not very well. Simons is cryptic and almost brusque; her squad members are barely sketched and are two-dimensional at best. They remain inert objects on the page, not fully developed individuals.
Simons seems uninterested in the actual role and mission of the Special Forces. In all the discussion of land navigation, for example, there's very little on its actual purpose, as there is on weapons and their use.
Too many issues are barely touched. And how did she become so intimate an observer, virtually a squad member?
The result is a great lack of context, of much sense of where the forces are going or what their goal is.
Too bad: the Special Forces are too important a topic, too significant as exemplars in today's Army, to receive such clumsy attention.
- Leonard Bushkoff