Tuesday, December 13, 2005

1776 by David McCullough

Wow! What more can be said about this book? (As you will see following, plenty, I'm sure)

I tend to read fiction. Although I love historical fiction, because it is a way to discover what happened in history in a personally meaningful way (as opposed to strategies and dates and movements and battles), I am not a big fan of straight factual history. So I was a little worried as I went to read (listen to) this book. I didn't fully believe the accounts that Mr. McCullough wrote in such a way that it was interesting, understandable, and engaging. But it really was!

The details McCullough chose to relate have a large part to do with that. He was not sentimental at all, but some of his details brought about strong feeling, more so than if he had written sentimentally, I believe. For example, there was a description of how Washington disdained the Yankee soldiers because they were filthy. Then there was the description of a corpse so crawling with lice that the viewers believed the lice themselves could have been the cause of his death! Euuw! But that really paints a picture, doesn't it?

One of the most surprising things was how McCullough made me care for the "characters" as in a book of fiction. My 16-year-old daughter thought I was nuts when I was cheering as I listened to the part of the book that described Nathaniel Greene's return to battle after his illness. Washington was so glad to have his most trusted advisor back, and I was happy, too!

For most of the book, I could not believe we were not still under British rule. Apparently, that first year of the Revolutionary War was VERY difficult and full of loss. I realized that although I had learned of the war in history classes, I had more of a "one if by land, two if by sea; the british are coming; give me liberty or give me death" knowledge, rather than anything realistic (to me). I have also been "cut off" from appreciating the Revolutionary War by my conflicting feelings about the men who fought this big war for freedom, and who were slave owners. In a very real way, that hypocrisy blocked me from feeling for the men, or proud of them.

Finally, on hearing this book, my age and maturity are such that I can appreciate and empathize with the experiences of the soldiers. We are currently in a "war" and it is SO different! First, strategies are totally alien to modern-day tactics. I have read Machiavelli and those tactics totally fit for the Revoluationary War, but today, not at all. Back then, it took days for information to pass on what the enemy troops were doing. It took weeks for the British Prime Minister to hear what was going on. General Washington was often misinformed as to the movements of the British and Hessian troops. Today, satellites and computers make it impossible to imagine fighting or planning "in the dark" as our forebears had to do. It is unimaginable to suffer in this way in modern times.

Also, the people of the country and the soldiers themselves sacrificed in ways we cannot imagine now. The soldiers in Iraq, although undoubtedly brave and strong, could not comprehend the difficulties the Continental Army suffered. For one thing, they did not even have CLOTHES! They lacked shoes and wore rags on their feet. In one town, the trail of blood showed the path trodden by the soldiers, as they were without shoes or boots. Some had clothing so tattered and filthy that it barely counted as clothing at all. They were not able to communicate with their families immediately (via e-mail or other satellite uplinks) as today's soldiers can. In the battle fought against the Hessians at Trenton, only two American deaths were suffered...neither of injuries in fighting, but they froze to death. Froze to death! Who could imagine such a thing happening now?

This is not to discount what soldiers today go through...only to point out the differences that technological progress has made. For example, while no soldiers freeze to death, as we have heated vehicles, there are soldiers from Vietnam who have died and suffered greatly from chemicals such as Agent Orange. And of course, a huge percentage of the nation of Japan was bombed to oblivion. So there is bravery and suffering in all ages.

I was also impressed by the way women were involved in the war. Letters home from soldiers and officers demonstrated how they considered their wives partners and equals. They did not SAY as much, but they told them of strategies and happenings and plans not in condescending ways, but as trusted and intelligent confidantes. And the British soldiers actually brought their women and children to America with them, and brought them along the field of battle (not the actual fighting, but near). I guess that was possible when one mile could make the difference between being in the battle and being mostly unaffected.

Also, for the first time, I learned of the failings of General Washington. He made errors in judgment, he failed utterly and completely, he suffered the betrayal and mistrust of his closest friends, and he faced great scorn at times. One thing I had remembered from history classes was his crossing of the Deleware on Christmas night, which led to the turnaround of the war. This is when Washington earned his reputation. So I am even more in awe of him as a hero because of his earlier failings. Many people fail. Many people make bad decisions. General Washington did not give in to self pity or whatever emotional suffering he may have undergone. Instead, he learned from his mistakes and he became a decisive, forgiving, determined leader. And history has shown that some of his original instincts (his picking of Greene and Knox, who stayed in the war with him until the end in 1783) were correct. So his qualities were made all the more impressive because of the hard work he went through to mature and grow in them.

I believe this book should be required reading for high school students. However, I am not fully convinced these students would have the same appreciation I do. Not that students are not intelligent...obviously many are! However, I think there is a certain amount of life experience required to actually understand things on a meaningful level. For example, if Lisha read this book, she would certainly not agree with me how moving and inspirational it is. Still...such a realistic portrait of both hardships and victories, mistakes and glory, that is how history should be taught. I know that I now am able to put aside my opinion of all of these men, including Washington, as hypocrites who were only out for themselves and their riches and power. I am able to appreciate the hardship with which our freedom was won. Obviously, the nation was not born perfect, but it was born and look how far we have come in such a short time! Obviously, we are still FAR from perfect (need a woman president or two, and a black president or two, and a WHOLE LOT LESS capitalism at the center of our entire society...and SO many other things), yet look how lucky we are in so many ways.

I recall my response to 911 being not "I'm proud to be an American" but "I'm grateful to be an American". I'm grateful for those men and women who fought and suffered so that I could be an American. And I'm grateful to David McCullough for writing this book in such a way that I could realize this gratitude in a whole new and deeper way.

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