Here it is my third-year anniversary, writing for this site; and what news do we get but that Steve Ambrose has died? It is very meet and right, then, that in honor of that great, flawed, gallant man who insisted to the last that it was the average dogface, it was Joe Leatherneck, it was the petty officer at the radar screen, it was the wing-wiper armorer, who mattered far more than the Pattons and Montys of this world it is meet, right, and my bounden duty that I, on this day, review Helene Ensign Maws Freedom Is For Those Willing to Defend It.
Mrs Maws work won the 2002 George Washington Award of the Freedoms Foundation of Valley Forge. You may conceivably not be familiar with that foundation; if so, a word of explanation is in order. The Foundation was conceived after the Second World War, and its chairman from its 1949 inception to his death in 1969 was one Dwight D. Eisenhower. It stresses citizenship and education, particularly education in citizenship: unfashionably, in these parlous times. Its presidency tends to be held by retired flag officers, including retired superintendents of one or another service academy.
Predictably, the Left hates it. (Especially do those on the lunatic fringe who regard the Internet as a vast right-wing conspiracy cooked up by Mort Kondracke, Jeane Kirkpatrick, and the CIA. No, Im not kidding.)
At any rate, this award is a Very Big Deal indeed. When it is given to a work, attention must be paid. And as ought surprise no one, it has been bestowed most deservingly.
Mrs Maw is not, per se or pro se: as a retired court reporter, she will not, doubtless, begrudge me a bit of lawyerly humor she is not, per se, a military historian, and certainly not (thank God) an academic historian. She is, as I just noted, a trained court reporter, though, and of all possible mental preparations for this work of hers, I can think of few better. With the possible exception of James Boswell, Dr Johnsons biographer, I can think of few members of the bar since Ciceros day whom I would trust in quite the way one trusts a court reporter for accuracy.
And Mrs Maw has not written, after all, a work of military history in the usual sense. She has done something far more important.
The fact is, any fool can set up to write a narrative history of any incident known to man; and judging by the autumn lists, in this year as in any year, plenty have. But the flood of history writing, good, bad, indifferent, and droolingly lunatic, could not occur but for the collation, transcription, and publication of primary sources, ranging from Official Records and the war diaries of various commands, to private memoirs and contemporaneous journals and letters home from the warfighters.
The work at hand is a collection of just such personal primary sources, from the line, properly collated, self-effacingly edited, and accurately contextualized. It is, in short, one of the building blocks, one of the fundamental amino acids, as it were, of the body of history and historiography.
Mrs Maw has done a commendable job in gathering and publishing accounts by NCOs, company officers, and field-grade officers, of their experiences some horrific, some awe-inspiring, not a few dowered with the sly humor of the foxhole in the Second World War, Korea, and Viet Nam. All are evocative; some approach the level of, say, Fahey, or of Quartered Safe Out Here, or of Trevelyans immortal The Fortress: A Diary of Anzio and After. Portions are as full of the militarys curious humor as any of George MacDonald Frasers Private McAuslan stories.
Of course, all the collected source material is also uplifting, and there will be legions of those who decry this fact. Didactic! they will hoot, and they will clamor for a more rounded presentation.
These people are a pain in the Army mascot.
All history is didactic and all history is selective in some sense (and may nonetheless, mind you, be fair and objective), whether it be that of Herodotus and Livy and Pollio, or of whatever New, New, No Really I Mean New Left historian is the current flavor of the month. The mere decision to write history, with its implicit assumption that the past is meaningful, is itself an adoption of a position, and inherently didactic. If anyone wants to collate and publish primary source material treated as honestly as Mrs Maw has treated hers that paints an unrelenting picture of American and Allied evil, fine. I welcome the undertaking. Primary source material is primary source material, and it is all grist to the slow-grinding, nigh-divine mills of history. But those who will not put up may, well, you know what follows.
In the meantime, what we have here is a work deserving of its accolades, both as an abstract of important primary source material (all such material being inherently important) and, as far as I am concerned, in its teaching purpose, which does not, blessedly, tell, but shows, by example.
Indeed, my sole concern has been whether I ought hold on to my review copy, or give it to the nearest public school with a guaranty that a portion will be read over the intercom each morning, and these veteranss names in it rememberèd, from this day to the ending of the world.
So be it. This remains: a true and sound building block, an admirable collection of primary sources in a small compass, and a moral, for those who dare draw it, most apt to our times. This is not the vast thunder of the big guns in the field, nor meant to be; but it is worthwhile, and evocative, and well-done. Would there were more such abstracts of the fundamental elements of history, by those who actually were in the line and knew the sting of combat, from polar ice to fetid jungle.
And there is precedent, after all, for the stone rejected of the builders to become the chief cornerstone.
I urge this book upon you all.
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