As a follow-up to our list of the “all-time greatest American patriotic novels,” I’ve pulled together what I believe to be the “all-time greatest American patriotic works of non-fiction.”
Keep in mind, “all-time” may be a bit of a stretch, because the oldest on this list only goes back to 1942. Also – like our list of novels (fiction) – this non-fiction list is highly subjective (perhaps to an even greater degree than the novels): Reflecting what I personally believe to be “the greatest American patriotic works of non-fiction” based on my own life experiences and influences: my being Southern, my military service, my time overseas as a civilian journalist.
Like the novels, I’ve come up with about 15, and culled them down to 10.
All are American works of non-fiction. All have inspired a sense of patriotism in me. All – in my world – are considered great. Again, without ranking, they are:
LEE’S LIEUTENANTS: A STUDY IN COMMAND by Douglas Southall Freeman (published in three volumes from 1942 to 1944). A brilliant, highly readable look-see at the key figures of the Army of Northern Virginia’s general-officer corps, their struggles and decisions. Perhaps had I been a boy from Ohio or Pennsylvania (instead of South Carolina), these three volumes might not have been so accessible in the school library or on the bookshelves of several friends’ dads. But they were. I grew up reading them. I was deeply inspired by them. And so, they made the cut here.
13 DAYS TO GLORY: THE SIEGE OF THE ALAMO by Lon Tinkle (1958). Thirteen days covered in 13 chapters leading up to one the greatest last-stands in military history. No red-blooded American boy (or man) can read this and not – at least for a moment – dream of himself standing a post on the ramparts even though he knows the outcome.
SWAMP FOX by Robert D. Bass (1960). No book stirred me more as a boy – except for perhaps the beautifully illustrated Golden Book of the American Revolution – than Bass’s account of the legendary guerrilla leader Francis Marion.
GOODBYE, DARKNESS: A MEMOIR OF THE PACIFIC WAR by William Manchester (1980). Though barely edging past two other favorites – With the Old Breed: At Peleliu and Okinawa by E.B. Sledge and Helmet for My Pillow: From Parris Island to the Pacific by Robert Leckie – GOODBYE, DARKNESS is Manchester’s World War II memoir of Marine culture and combat in the Pacific theater. Of boot camp at Parris Island, he writes, “Even today, despite the horrors [of war] which inevitably followed, I am haunted by my weeks as a recruit.”
WHAT I SAW AT THE REVOLUTION: A POLITICAL LIFE IN THE REAGAN ERA by Peggy Noonan (1990). Reading almost anything by Peggy Noonan is a treat, and this is no exception. Publisher’s Weekly says it’s, “Part political memoir, part autobiography, this conversational, effusive, anecdotal reminiscence offers a reverential portrait of ex-president Reagan … that at times borders on embarrassing, schoolgirlish adulation.” So what? Yes, it’s one of my all-time favorites.
BAND OF BROTHERS: E COMPANY, 506TH REGIMENT, 101ST AIRBORNE FROM NORMANDY TO HITLER’S EAGLE’S NEST by Stephen E. Ambrose (1992). Perhaps the greatest chronicle of U.S. paratroopers in combat, the book led to an equally stirring HBO series of the same title.
(Fans of the HBO series are looking forward to the forthcoming HBO series, The Pacific, which chronicles the lives of Marines fighting in the Pacific, among them Medal of Honor recipient “Manila John” Basilone. Interestingly, the companion book to the new series is authored by Hugh Ambrose – son of the BAND OF BROTHERS author – and is largely based on two of my previously mentioned runners-up: With the Old Breed by Sledge and Helmet for My Pillow by Leckie).
THE GREATEST GENERATION by Tom Brokaw (1998). One of the great patriotic books telling the story of – and a now-coined-superlative describing – the generation of my parents (and those Americans a few years older) that raised the flag on Iwo Jima and nearly 25 years later raised it on the moon, all the while building the world’s greatest superpower nation.
WHAT’S SO GREAT ABOUT AMERICA by Dinesh D’Souza (2002). Transcending patriotism, this book is for me the kind of perspective-enhancing reminder of why we all should be hitting our knees every night and thanking God for America and, yes, the many great generations that built her.
My favorite passage: “Here is a country where everything works: The roads are clean and paper-smooth; the highway signs are clear and accurate; the public toilets function properly; when you pick up the telephone, you get a dial tone; you can even buy things from the store and then take them back. For the Third World visitor, the American supermarket is a thing to behold: endless aisles of every imaginable product, 50 different types of cereal, and multiple flavors of ice cream.”
Then D’Souza asks a friend from Mumbai why he is so determined to come to America. His friend’s response, “Because I really want to move to a country where the poor people are fat.”
NO TRUE GLORY: A FRONTLINE ACCOUNT OF THE BATTLE FOR FALLUJAH by Bing West (2005). Perhaps the best account of the 2004 Battle of Fallujah, since described as the most intense urban combat since the bloody battle for the Vietnamese city of Hué in 1968. Max Boot, writing for The Weekly Standard, deftly seizes on Marine culture in his review: “amazing accounts of heroism, brutality, perseverance, and gallows humor.” The Washington Post attempts to praise West and the battle’s victors, but not without a political crack: “West paints a picture of highly capable Marines struggling to make the best of untenable political circumstances.”
1776 by David McCullough (2005). I cannot say this is any better than McCullough’s other books. But it is one of my favorites. In classic show-don’t-tell fashion, McCullough’s treatment of Gen. Washington as a man and a soldier with the seeming weight of the universe on his shoulders is nothing short of masterful.
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