November 24, 2010


Lion of Liberty: Patrick Henry and the Call to a New Nation. By Harlow Giles Unger. Da Capo. $26.

Give Me Tomorrow: The Korean War’s Greatest Untold Story—The Epic Stand of the Marines of George Company. By Patrick K. O’Donnell. Da Capo. $26.

     Wars produce heroes, but the wars themselves do not necessarily seem heroic. For every necessary (and hence, in some sense, “good” war), such as World War II, there are many skirmishes about whose value history is less certain. Sometimes the participants are unsure of those wars’ value, too. Patrick Henry, for example, never doubted the value of the war that established the United States of America. But he was less sure about the value of the nation as it was shaped after the war ended, and it turns out that some of his greatest fears have proved correct in the two centuries since he expressed them. He expressed them very well indeed: Henry was a powerful orator and excellent speechwriter (no professional word spinners in his time). Passionately devoted to the cause of liberty in terms of individual rights – a stance that explains his fiery oratory, his skill at fomenting revolution and his eventual disillusionment with some of what that revolution led to – Henry served four terms as governor of Virginia. But he refused a fifth term, just as he turned down offers to become a U.S. Senator, Secretary of State, even Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court. Scarcely a man of overweening ambition – rather the opposite, in fact – Henry was throughout his life concerned about protecting people from government. This was his thinking in terms of the British rule over the American colonies, and was also his thinking about the role that the federal government, under George Washington’s leadership, was to play in the newly formed post-revolutionary nation. Thus, Henry was an advocate of limited government – but the limited-government forces eventually lost out to proponents of a strong central government that Henry feared (rightly, as it turned out) would constantly push beyond the carefully constrained powers accorded to it in the Constitution, and in so doing would degrade the inherent individual rights of all American citizens. It can be argued – and has been, time and time again – that the increase of federal power had the effect of expanding individual rights, especially for the disenfranchised (notably including slaves and women). Henry, who obtained slaves when he bought properties but opposed slavery and spent considerable time trying to figure out how to end it, would have been clear-headed enough to see this – Harlow Giles Unger’s biography makes the clarity of Henry’s thought abundantly plain. But it is unlikely that Henry would have approved of the overreaching (in Constitutional terms) through which these expansions of liberty were accomplished. Henry is not an especially well-known figure in American history, beyond his famous speech urging, “Give me liberty or give me death.” Unger does a fine job of putting him in historical context in terms of his background (he was a failed tobacco farmer), his family life (18 children), and his political stands (among them a bill to subsidize mixed marriages with Indians and a proposal to establish Christianity as the religion of Virginia – two failed attempts that, as Unger shows, make sense in context). Filled with excerpts from Henry’s speeches and letters, Lion of Liberty provides a fine, multifaceted portrait of a stirring orator and accomplished politician, although it occasionally gives short shrift to interesting tidbits (Henry’s proposal in 1776 to create a dictator of Virginia) and provides more detail about battles and commercial transactions than some readers will want to know. On balance, though, this is a noteworthy biography that shows both Henry’s importance to the establishment of the United States and the distance between the sort of nation he hoped to create and the one that exists two centuries later.

     A war very different from the American Revolution, with a far more ambiguous outcome (under which there is still no peace treaty more than 50 years after the cease-fire), is the subject of Give Me Tomorrow, the latest in a long series of military histories claiming to tell the “greatest untold story” of this war or that. Patrick K. O’Donnell here focuses on the 200 men of the Marines’ George Company during the Korean War, and specifically on the Battle of the Chosin Reservoir in 1950. This was a fight by the vastly outnumbered Marines against both North Korean and Chinese troops – and against temperatures that reached 30 degrees below zero Fahrenheit. The purpose of the battle was to prevent the loss of the First Marine Division’s headquarters and supply base – a crucial action in wartime, but one that will inevitably seem minor to many civilians 50 years later. O’Donnell has nothing but admiration and sympathy for the Marines who fought at Chosin. A new memorial to the men who fell there is now on display at the National Museum of the Marine Corps near Quantico, Virginia, but Give Me Tomorrow is a memorial as well. O’Donnell goes out of his way to turn the men into characters in a story, emphasizing their youth and their many different backgrounds (Southerner, Northerner, Native American, and so on), and selecting details of their deployment that make the book more than an unremitting slog through inhospitable terrain. There is, for instance, the game of Hearts played in a building illuminated by a C-Ration can filled with sand and gasoline; the accident in refilling the can that left one man with horrible burns; and the dual footnotes: that Harrell Roberts, one of the card players, never played Hearts again, and that the burned man, Clayton Sepulveda, eventually recovered, returned to active duty, and was killed by a sniper. It is impossible not to respect the men of George Company, which clearly earned its nickname, “Bloody George.” And it is impossible not to admire the painstaking research and very extensive interviews from which O’Donnell built Give Me Tomorrow. But it is hard to see to whom the book will appeal, other than Korean War veterans and military historians such as O’Donnell. The horrors that George Company endured were the horrors of many a war; and the lack (until recently) of recognition of what they did is, unfortunately, just what many veterans of many wars return home to discover. George Company clearly is deserving of respect and acknowledgment, both at Quantico and in this book. But it is not uniquely deserving, and unfortunately there are many other “greatest untold stories” out there, of many other fighters in many other wars.

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