Friday, March 11, 2005

Is that boy touched or something?

Mark Grimsley has been pumping out a string of George Custer related posts over the past couple of days. I am not, frankly, a fan of Lieutenant Colonel Custer. He's one of history's big winkies, in my carefully formulated and academically rigorous view.

The reason I mention this is that it all brought to mind a favourite passage of mine from John Keegan. I am not, as several people on my course would be able to tell you, an uncritical admirer of Keegan (setting aside The Face of Battle). However, this passage from his not-very-well-known-curate's-egg Warpaths sparked my enthusiasm the first time I read it and I have found myself coming back to it a number of times:

George Custer was not a nice man. Brave certainly, bold, dashing, quick in decision, physically attractive, both to men and women, sexually alluring, all that; but nice, no. Niceness is not, of course, a prerequisite quality in a successful soldier. Grant, greatest of American generals, was not nice. The 1st Duke of Wellington, epitome of the English gentleman, was not nice. Washington, mastermind of revolutionary victory, was not nice. Sherman, hatchet man of the Civil War and Custer's commander on the plans, was not nice. There was about all those four, however, a redeeming moral quality that makes their lack of niceness beside the point. Wellington fought Napoleon with the relentlessness he did because he thought the Emperor of the French a political charlatan. Washington and Grant fought for the United States because they believed in the principles on which the republic was founded. Sherman fought in order to bring to an end a form of political intercourse, war between the states, for which he had come to feel distaste. For all four, war was no more than a means serving a higher object. The object engaged their moral sense, the means aroused in them an ultimate repugnance.

Custer, by every account, enjoyed war for its own sake. "Oh, could you have but seen some of the charges that were made," he exclaimed to a friend, recalling his experiences in the Civil War. "While thinking of them I cannot but exclaim, 'Glorious War.'" Young, headstrong, successful and unwounded soldiers have often felt the glory of war. It is the emotion that runs through the Iliad; but Homer's heroes, like Alexander's Companions and Bohemund's Crusaders, were the offsprinf of warrior societies, in which skill at arms rode roughshod over higher values. Warriordom survives into our own times: the Gulf War would not have been won did West Point and Quantico and Sandhurst and St.-Cyr not continue to turn out young leaders who snort like warhorses at the scent of blood. There ought to be, however, a difference between the emotions of the young warrior and th old in civilised societies. A young warrior enlists to fight. His senior serves to tame theimpetuousness of gallants and braves - the Sioux thought as much - to more sober purposes. Indeed, the role even of the young officer is as much to restrain as to lead; without his exertion of a measure of control over the actions of his followers, combatdescends rapidly into mayhem on the one hand and disaster on the other. In that context, the failure of an officer to grow up is calamitous. Custer, the "Boy General," appears never to have grown up.



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