Warriors: Portraits from the Battlefield [Buy Now]

By Max Hastings
354 pages

“This study will be of no interest to such modern warlords as U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld,” Max Hastings writes in Warriors, “because it addresses aspects of conflict they do not comprehend, creatures of flesh and blood rather than systems of steel and electronics.”

Warriors collects biographical vignettes of some of the West’s greatest war heroes from the last 200 years. The point, confesses Hastings, a respected military historian, is to create a counterpoint to our “public yearning to make life safe.”

“A corollary to this [yearning],” he continues, “is a diminution of enthusiasm for those who embrace risk … Yet all nations need warriors to pursue their national interests in conflict.”

Warriors’ subjects have this in common: They braved great danger, even lustfully, and came to be celebrated for it. But the natures of the dangers they faced, the attitudes with which they faced them, and the reasons why — and the means by which they became famous — differ greatly. Warriors attempts a taxonomy of these diverse war heroes, but draws few conclusions. Perhaps the author’s “hero” rubric is too vague to allow for precise analysis. It admits combatants who have too little in common to inform each other’s experiences.

Or perhaps connections are there, and Hastings just misses them.

Among Hastings’ warriors, there are murderous psychopaths such as World War I American fighter ace Eddie Rickenbacker and World War II G.I. Audie Murphy. Rickenbacker, Hastings writes, shared a “personal commitment to taking life which, in modern warfare, was shared only by the infantry sniper.” Murphy, similarly, “suffered not the slightest hesitation, such as was commonplace among citizen soldiers, about killing his fellow man.”

Here there are also superb leaders and tacticians such as Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, the Civil War Union colonel who held the line at Gettysburg and turned back the Confederate invasion of the North and “whose intelligence and nobility matched his courage.” There is one woman, New Zealander Nancy Wake, who led a successful French Resistance cell and demonstrated a zeal for combat equal to any man’s. There is even one gentleman, a World War I German cruiser captain named Karl Friedrich Max von Mueller, who took pains to spare civilians and who rigorously adhered to outmoded notions of high-seas chivalry, even when they put him at a military disadvantage.

These heroes’ motives were as diverse as their personalities and their fields of combat. Murphy never seemed particularly interested in being anybody’s hero; he just wanted to kill people. Rickenbacker lusted for fame. Chamberlain seemed drawn to combat for its romance and for its philosophical implications — and because he genuinely believed in the Union cause. Wake was in love with the stress. Mueller was simply a professional who found reward in a difficult job.

In the foreword, Hastings throws down a gauntlet: “Warriors are unfashionable people in democratic societies during periods of peace … [But] in times of war, fighting men are suddenly cherished and become celebrities — or at least did so until very recently.”

In other words, Hastings says, we aren’t creating new war heroes these days. The only glimmer of an explanation he offers for this development is this single touch-and-go: “It seems dismaying that the public today blurs the distinction between a victim, who suffers terrible experiences, and a hero.”

Reading between the lines, I can only conclude that, after two centuries of unprecedented bloodshed in which Hastings’ heroes were happy participants, the West has rejected war’s glamour. The only warriors we know by name are those, such as Jessica Lynch and Pat Tillman, who suffered greatly. We’ve finally stopped idolizing killers.

Hastings seems to think that’s a bad thing. Veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan might disagree.