The History of America at War Offers a Lesson for All

H.W. Crocker’s Don’t Tread on Me: A 400-Year History of America at War, from Indian Fighting to Terrorist Hunting is three books in one. It entertains like a novel, teaches like a comprehensive text and captures the secret essence of its subject like a great biography. Wars—both conventional and unconventional—are the fundament of every nation’s history. In this book, a tour de armed force, we see 400 years of American history from what Crocker calls the “gentle art of scalping” to post-Vietnam America resurgent in the fight against terrorists.

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Military histories often read like the minutes of meetings. Even the best, such as Shelby Foote’s Civil War trilogy, are often bogged down in “who-shot-John” detail. Perhaps the greatest history of any war, Winston Churchill’s six-volume account of World War II, can lose the reader in its daily and hourly accounts. Crocker doesn’t bog, he flashes and slashes through the years, recounting battles, wars and the men who fought them in wry and often irreverent terms. The book could well have been subtitled “The Tale of Two Tomahawks.”

In the beginning, there was one tomahawk. Crocker tells us that America’s first special operations force, Rogers’ Rangers of 1755, “…were frontiersmen, hard men and, as their numbers grew, they even employed such ruffians as Irishmen and Spaniards, to the scandal of Calvinist New England.” Among the weapons carried by the first Rangers was the tomahawk, as useful for scalping a dead enemy as for cutting pieces of wood. It was, Crocker recounts, by winning the French and Indian Wars—allowing Americans such as George Washington to learn how to win wars by fighting by their rules—that the British lost their most valuable colonies.

In the end, there is the other tomahawk. Superpower 21st-Century America—armed with a high-tech arsenal, including the Tomahawk cruise missile—struggles to deal with the low-tech Islamist terrorists armed with a dead-end ideology.

Shaped the Nation

In between are the wars that shaped our nation. Crocker paints each one briefly and vividly. After winning independence, America was almost immediately at war with the Tripolitan pirates in two conflicts that established the U.S. Marines as America’s “kick the door in” force and the American navy as a power to be reckoned with. American military traditions were established by men such as Preble, O’Bannon and Stephen Decatur who defeated the first modern jihad and by “Old Hickory”—Andrew Jackson—in the Battle of New Orleans. It is in the historical portraits of these men, and many more, that Crocker fascinates, informs and entertains best.

These portraits are the heart of Crocker’s view of war. Andrew Jackson is introduced by the words of John Quincy Adams, who said Jackson was “a barbarian who could not write a sentence of grammar and hardly could spell his own name.” To which, Crocker adds, Jackson was proud, prone to rages, and fiercely principled. “All of which meant he was not a compromiser and not a clubbable man.” One of Crocker’s subtleties is showing, rather than saying, that war is not a gentleman’s profession.

Wars are recounted from the viewpoint of those who fought, and war leaders are described by their peers, usually with the kind of political mockery that is a true but too-often neglected common thread in America’s history. In the Civil War, Fremont postures, McClellan primps, and Fighting Joe Hooker’s headquarters, according to a Union officer, was a place “to which no self-respecting man liked to go and no decent woman would go. It was a combination barroom and brothel.” But Hooker—and his commander, Grant—grabbed Lee’s Army of Virginia and didn’t let go. Of all the greatest tragedies, Crocker’s account shows that the Civil War took more American lives than both World Wars, Korea and Vietnam combined.

We pass through the First World War, given to understand that by so terribly damaging itself in one, Old Europe made the other inevitable. In the mud and trenches of the first, the youngish officers such as Maj. George S. Patton, Jr., and Col. Douglas MacArthur learned the trades they would apply in the second. And Roosevelt and Churchill became the cornerstones of the “special relationship” that America and Britain have enjoyed since—at least until Tony Blair leaves office.

World War II and Korea—though written about in hundreds of other books—are retold in crisp and clear detail. And on the canvas of Vietnam, Crocker shows conclusively how a military victory became, in the words of one Vietnamese officer, a “shameless bugout.”

Crocker’s history ends, as it must, with the 1991 Gulf War and the continuing war in Iraq. Here he shines brilliantly. The trust that the American soldier places in his commanders—right up to the President—is one Crocker properly enshrines as sacred to us all. Americans should read the book to understand for themselves America at war. I will re-read it for the sheer joy of the writer’s art.


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