War is full of dirty little secrets.
Perhaps the dirtiest of all is that the enemy is usually comprised of people just like us.
Decent, honorable people, trying to do what’s right for their cause or their country, or for themselves.
That’s one of the messages you take away from Don Hagist’s new book on the British soldiers who fought to suppress the American Revolution.
In an interview with The World, Hagist says “there’s a tendency to look at historical wars strictly in terms of good guys and bad guys,” adds Hagist. “And so you assume that if America’s enemy were the bad guys, then the people fighting in the army must have been bad somehow. So we lose sight of the fact that the armies are made up of individual people and they all had lives, they all had reasons for joining the army.”
The book centers on a collection of first-hand accounts written by a handful of the thousands of British soldiers who came to America to defeat the revolting colonists.
These accounts provide a fascinating insight into the motives and lives of these individual professional soldiers.
But it’s Hagist’s ability to integrate these stories with his decades of scholarship that really sets “British Soldiers, American War” apart.
He uses these stories as a narrative thread to anchor and showcase his insight into the composition and demographics of the 18th century British army.
Gone are the myths found in so much of the literature about the scum of the earth, pressed into service as an alternative to jail or the gallows, then disciplined brutally with constant floggings to become a mindless killing machine, insensitive to danger, and incapable of independent thought.
It’s a set of myths reinforced by Hollywood and innumerable authors and popular historians.
In place of myths is solid data that shows how common British soldiers had their own lives, thoughts and aspirations.
If there’s one criticism to be made, it’s that Hagist may occasionally present an impression of military life that’s a little too rosy.
For example, he describes how many men enlisted to better themselves, and clearly many did. But it does not take into account the of views of contemporary writers like William Cobbett, who served in the peacetime army of the 1780s, and who protested against the low pay and harsh treatment, even exploitation, of enlisted men in the British army.
But nonetheless, this book clearly reclaims the humanity of these soldiers.
Just like us.