November 16, 2017
(+++) WARS IN GRAND AND PERSONAL TERMS
The Strategy of Victory: How General George Washington Won the American Revolution. By Thomas Fleming. Da Capo. $28.
A Crime in the Family: A World War II Secret Buried in Silence—and My Search for the Truth. By Sacha Batthyány. Da Capo. $28.
It is customary to think of war broadly, to regard it as, in Carl von Clausewitz’s famous words, “the continuation of politics by other means,” and therefore as something large-scale and momentous. And this is true but incomplete. If war occurs on a large canvas, it is also the individual stories of the people who fight it, and there are certainly interstices of war history that repay exploration even many decades, or even centuries, after a particular conflict is over. The late Thomas Fleming (1927-2017), in more than 40 books, returned again and again to analyses of wars and the people who fought and were caught in them. He was expert in thinking through strategies and tactics by looking closely at specific occurrences during wartime and the decisions, good or bad, that were made as a result. Fleming’s books are of scholarly interest for their interpretative excellence, even when they are somewhat too rarefied to appeal to a general readership. Books about George Washington, for example, can reliably be expected to interest people beyond a hardcore group of military historians; but The Strategy of Victory, for all its fine arguments and careful consideration of the military necessities underlying the formation of the United States, is primarily a book for those already familiar with America’s war for independence and interested in a new overview of the way that war was won. Fleming shows again and again that Washington was an exemplary adjuster: he would create strategies and tactics but would not hesitate to change them when conditions warranted, giving the Continental Army flexibility that the more-regimented British forces could not (and, in truth, did not wish to) match. Washington’s forces lost many battles, Fleming points out, but did not balk at retreating so as to be able to fight another day – the loss of posts and forts was seen as a necessary component of eventual victory. Even more interestingly, Fleming shows that when Washington and his field commanders won battles, as at Trenton, Monmouth and Saratoga, they did not use their victories to take on the British frontally in an attempt at decisive victory. Washington essentially fought a war of attrition, not one of confrontation, except when he had no choice; and he tried to make sure that he always had a choice. Fleming does a fine job of showing how Washington made skillful use not only of the perennially under-funded Continental Army (the “regulars”) but also of “irregular” militias, whose help proved crucial again and again (and undoubtedly led to the still-controversial phrasing of the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution). With his penchant for focusing on little-known aspects of war in addition to better-known ones, Fleming in The Strategy of Victory gives more time and attention to the last northern battles of the war than other historians do – battles such as Springfield and Connecticut Farms – before switching to discussions of the final stages of the war in Virginia and the Carolinas. And Fleming makes clear that the victory Washington sought was not fully won after the British surrender at Yorktown in 1781, because the continued refusal by Congress to appropriate adequate funds for the Continental Army led to simmering resentment that came to a head in March 1783 in a near-mutiny that Washington stopped through a personal gesture that deserves to be far better known. “Washington fumbled in the inner pocket of his coat and took out a copy of a letter he had recently received from Virginia congressman Joseph Jones, describing some of the positive steps Congress was planning to satisfy the officers. After reading the first few lines, he stopped and peered at the page. Reaching into another pocket, he extracted a set of eyeglasses he had recently received from Philadelphia. No one except a few aides had seen him wearing them. ‘Gentlemen,’ he said, ‘you will permit me to put on my spectacles, for I have not only grown gray but almost blind in the service of my country.’” What an amazing, humanizing moment this is in The Strategy of Victory, and what a way to show that a man usually thought of as distant, wooden, even cold and calculating, had a deeply heartfelt side that he showed only rarely but that, when he did so, had – as it had on this occasion – an overwhelming effect. Fleming manages in this book to show that the grand matters of the American Revolution were balanced in some ways by the small ones, such as reaching for a pair of spectacles. He gives a more-humanizing portrait of Washington than many other historians do, while not neglecting the battlefield detail that the primary audience for this book will expect. The Strategy of Victory may be mainly for those already deeply involved in studies of the American Revolution, but it is also a worthy volume for readers who may just happen to stumble upon it and start thumbing through it out of a sense of curiosity.
A much more recent war, one that ended “only” 75 years ago, is the impetus behind Sacha Batthyány’s memoir, A Crime in the Family. The word “only” belongs in quotation marks in this context, because the whole point of the book is that for those deeply involved in World War II, and their descendants and families, the war’s end feels as if it happened only yesterday. Perhaps, the book argues, wars never really end, their effects being felt through generation after generation and affecting people born long after the wars’ official conclusions. Batthyány does not make this statement directly, but it permeates his telling of the story, which is an ugly, sordid and highly personal one. Batthyány, a Swiss-born journalist with Hungarian parents, learns one day that a distant relative, his great-aunt Margit – an heiress to the German Thyssen fortune – gave a party in March 1945, near the war’s end, during which an atrocity was committed: almost 180 Jews were shot dead by people attending the festivities, stripped naked and forced to dig their own mass grave as Margit and her guests, many of them prominent Nazis, drank and danced gaily. This is one horror among many, many others from World War II – wars are nothing without atrocities – but this one hits home for Batthyány because someone in his family was involved, and he sets out to learn the truth about what happened. It proves to be a seven-year search with the aid of the diary of his paternal grandmother, Maritta, and a separate record kept by Maritta’s onetime neighbor – Agnes Mandl, an Auschwitz survivor who is still alive and living in Buenos Aires when Batthyány locates her. The main thing Batthyány finds out, and it is no surprise at all, is that after all the years and all the deaths, all the records lost or changed or destroyed both by the Nazis and by the Communists who succeeded them as rulers of Hungary, all the people who still refuse to speak because they want only to put the memories of that time behind them, it is simply impossible to know the truth. Batthyány comes up with several truths, or aspects of the truth, in a search whose outcome will surprise absolutely no one. Batthyány’s methodical research and his journey into his family’s past are nevertheless fascinating, particularly in the way they stand for something beyond the personal – for the eternal search for truth and the eternal inability to pin it down as time passes, memories fade and people try to go on with their post-war lives. Batthyány is not very introspective about any of this, despite the weekly visits with his psychoanalyst – which he documents and reports carefully and which are repetitive and annoying, the weakest part of the book. Batthyány never finds out exactly what happened in March 1945; readers will realize early on that he will not. So A Crime in the Family is a journey of discovery rather than the unraveling of a mystery (in fact, the massacre of the 180 Jews in the town of Rechnitz has been known for a long time, so Batthyány is looking for details about his family’s complicity rather than for new information about the event itself). Inevitably, Batthyány tells readers that he learned much about himself during his search and was forced to realize, eventually, that if he had been present at the time the killings occurred, he would not have had the courage to hide and protect Jews. That is a touch of honesty, and indeed there is honesty throughout A Crime in the Family, to the extent that Batthyány and the others in it are capable of it in any objective sense after so many years. The reality is that Batthyány is just one of thousands upon thousands of people descended from people who endured horrendous wartime experiences in World War II and other wars, and that yes, some of those experiences were more intense and horrific than others, and that yes, there can be something salutary in dredging up the desiccated remnants of the past for those who choose to do so. But Batthyány, like others exploring long-gone times that many people would rather forget than recall, thinks not at all of the collateral damage caused by pushing people to remember in detail times and events of unimaginable trauma. What Batthyány finds helpful for himself is scarcely that for all the people he interviews and confronts. Self-focused selfishness in memory extraction is yet another of the innumerable depredations and long-lasting consequences of war.