Americans honor those who have served every Memorial Day and acknowledge the sacrifice that untold thousands have made, and are making, in the service of their country by attending parades, thanking a veteran, wearing a poppy, or posting on their social media pages. We thank the veterans for serving their country and those who gave “their last full measure of devotion” dying for their country and for the principles of liberty and republican self-government as enshrined in the Declaration of Independence.
During this weekend, as a nation at war, we naturally think of those who have fought abroad since September 11, 2001. We also think much of our fathers who fought in Korea or Vietnam during the Cold War or our grandfathers who struggled against the forces of darkness in Iwo Jima or Normandy during World War II when “uncommon valor was a common virtue.” But, when Americans commemorate the sacrifice of their soldiers and the principles for which they fought, they also reach back into the distant past.
The tradition of fighting for American principles of liberty and self-government was seen in the horrendous battles of Antietam and Gettysburg when brother fought against brother for a “new birth of freedom.” They fought for those principles at Fort McHenry and in New Orleans against the British in the War of 1812, what many historians have called the “second war for independence.”
But, we reach even farther into the past to honor who defended freedom and democracy in ancient Greece against the Persian Empire who offered submission, slavery, and tyranny. On the plains of Marathon in 490 B.C., a mostly Athenian army stood against King Darius and slaughtered over 6,400 of the enemy while suffering only 192 losses, soon revered as the “Marathon Men.” At the Hot Gates of Thermoplyae in 480 B.C., Spartan King Leonidas and his band of 300 (and several hundred allies) slew as many as 20,000 Persians, delaying King Xerxes’ invasion and teaching him about the power of armies defending their lands, their families, their freedom, and their consensual governments. While Xerxes burned a deserted Athens later that year, free men sailed out at Salamis and handed the Persians a decisive defeat that caused the king to flee home. On the fields of Plataea in 479 B.C., the Greeks pledged an oath before their victory that, “I will fight as long as I am alive, and I shall not value living above my being free . . . And I shall bury in the same spot the dead of those who have fought as my allies, and shall leave behind none of them unburied.”
For me, Memorial Day weekend has always been a time of reflective reading in the history of soldiers and their wars. I have spent time over the years reading books from Stephen Ambrose’s epic histories of D-Day and World War II to David McCullough’s 1776 narrating the dramatic events of Washington’s heroic Crossing of the Delaware.
Here are some recently published books this spring that will help citizens reflect on the soldiers throughout history that have contributed to the legacy of liberty and free government.
Victor Davis Hanson, The Savior Generals: How Five Great Commanders Saved Wars that were Lost – From Ancient Greece to Iraq (New York: Bloomsbury). Hanson, one of our greatest classicists, military historians, and writers has penned a series of portraits of important generals including Themistocles, Belisarius, William T. Sherman, Matthew Ridgway, and David Petreus, who have snatched victory from desperate moments of seemingly lost wars. Hanson tells us that he chose generals from consensual societies because “the very notion of ‘savior’ is embedded within some sense of a moral universe that should be saved.” Hitler’s generals often won against great odds, but “their causes ultimately were better lost than won.”
Paul Cartledge, After Thermoplyae: The Oath of Plataea and the End of the Greco-Persian Wars (New York: Oxford University Press). Cartledge is one of the best academic popularizers of ancient Greek history. He debunks the origins of the Oath of Plataea but provides a nice study of the Greek world and the wars with the Persians. He argues that Plataea “was one of those historic rarities, a truly decisive battle. Moreover, its result brought a surprisingly positive outcome not just for the Greeks but arguably for the entire future of western civilization as a whole.”
Nathaniel Philbrick, Bunker Hill: A City, A Siege, A Revolution (New York: Viking). Philbrick is a popular historian and non-fiction writer who has produced a solid narrative history of Bunker Hill, seeing it as a result of a decade of British tyranny. He writes of the importance of the battle: “The Battle of Bunker Hill is the critical turning point in the story of how a rebellion born in the streets of Boston became a countrywide war for independence.”
Allen C. Guelzo, Gettysburg: The Last Invasion (New York: Knopf). Guelzo, arguably the finest living scholar on Abraham Lincoln, has produced an outstanding military history of the Battle of Gettysburg. Guelzo rejects his fellow academic historians who scoff at the writing of military history and notes its significance: “We cannot talk about the American nineteenth century without talking about the Civil War, and we cannot talk about the Civil War without acknowledging, even grudgingly, that the Civil War’s singular event was a war,” and the singular battle in Guelzo’s eyes was Gettysburg.
Rick Atkinson, The Guns at Last Night: The War in Western Europe, 1944-1945 (New York: Henry Holt). Military historian Rick Atkinson ends his epic trilogy of Americans liberating Europe from the iron grip of Nazi tyranny in North Africa, Sicily and Italy, and now Northern France. His massive achievement is the crowning story of the courageous men who stormed the beaches.
Finally, two recent books, Richard Beeman’s Our Lives, Our Fortunes & Our Sacred Honor, as well as Joseph Ellis’ Revolutionary Summer, promise to be excellent books on the creation of the Declaration of Independence and the principles for which soldiers fought and died for. We at the WJMI honor the sacrifice of those who fought for Western and American freedom from the plains of Marathon to the mountains of Afghanistan.
Tony Williams is Program Director of the Washington, Jefferson & Madison Institute, is a teacher and an author of four books on the Founding period, and lives with his family in Williamsburg, Virginia.