Discovering America with British eyes

June 02, 1996|By Vincent Fitzpatrick | Vincent Fitzpatrick,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

"Fields of Battle: The Wars for North America," by John Keegan. 338 pages. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. $30.

The settlement of North America, John Keegan remarks early on in "Fields of Battle," is "the most stupendous achievement of military as well as human history." Keegan's book is a remarkable achievement as well - a warm and wise and witty volume that offers delight as well as instruction.

Synthesizing a huge mass of material, ranging easily across continents and through centuries, he offers a compelling narrative that will be intelligible to the general reader and informative to the specialist. To say that the author writes well is to say that Robert E. Lee was a skilled commander.

Author of the highly acclaimed "The Face of Battle," formerly senior lecturer at the British Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst, Keegan explains how "the logic of North American geography" has shaped combat in the New World.

Especially interested in fortifications, he analyzes the French and Indian War, the Revolutionary War (with a focus upon the Battle ** of Yorktown), and the Peninsula Campaign in the Civil War. He offers a chilling account of Custer's Last Stand in 1876 and concludes by discussing the airplane's increasing importance in warfare. The Flying Fortresses became "the airborne equivalents Fort McHenry and Fortress Monroe."

Both villains and heroes populate this "drama of the American landscape." Union General George McClellan, who accomplished so little with so much, was "a hollow man" whose "timidity became almost paranoiac." George Armstrong Custer, who "appears never to have grown up," arrogantly led all 210 of his men to their slaughter. On the other hand, the campaigns of Stonewall Jackson, whose "foot cavalry" mystified Union forces for years, are analyzed with huge admiration.

His methodology, Mr. Keegan explains, is "simultaneously aesthetic and historical and mystical." Throughout "Fields of Battle," he uses military history as a springboard to discuss other issues of interest: politics and literature, and race and religion.

"Fields of Battle" chronicles Mr. Keegan's "discovery of the United States." He travels literally through space and time and figuratively through the power of the imagination. He first saw America in 1957 as an undergraduate at Oxford; he examines it today as a grandparent. This journey, undertaken in "a mood of exploration and wonder" generates the observations of an Americanophile.

In its broadest sense, "Fields of Battle" presents Mr. Keegan coming to terms with the American experience, which began as one of the most noble political experiments in human history. He offers a fair and engrossing portrayal of this huge and bloody and energetic and sometimes wrongheaded republic.

For today's American reader, this volume proves bracing. We have allowed ourselves to be commanded by some inept politicians. Having grown timid, we have allowed ourselves to be beleaguered from the Left by the smug proponents of political correctness and from the Right by the moralistic Bible thumpers - both of whom are convinced that they know what is best for us. "Fields of Battle" makes one ponder how bright and bold and brave we once were and, just perhaps, might be again.

Vincent Fitzpatrick is the author of "H. L. Mencken," co-author of "The Complete Sentence Workout Book," and co-editor of Mencken's "Thirty-five Years of Newspaper Work." He is writing a critical biography of Gerald White Johnson. His paternal great-grandfather, an Irish immigrant, fought for the Union.

Pub date: 6/02/96

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