Cowboy: interpreter, warlord, one more casualty


What a great book! I've long had the habit of reading something Serious during daylight hours, then switching to an entertainment for the evening. But Jim Rasenberger's Revolver: Sam Colt and the Six-Shooter That Changed America upset my routine, and I had to put the latest Harry Bosch aside until the biography was done.

I've always admired Colt-the-company, not only for the famed "Peacemaker" worn by every self-respecting Hollywood cowboy but also for the AR-15 that it produced (though didn't invent) and that became the basis for the M-16 rifle and its descendants that have equipped the US Army for more than fifty years. But I knew little about Samuel Colt, a wild lad who went to sea and was flogged for stealing sweets; invented the modern pistol, with "a rotating cylinder containing several chambers" that would "discharge through one barrel"; raised the money to develop it by staging demonstrations of laughing gas; and acquired British and American patents for the device -- all by the time he was twenty-one! -- and in the process more or less invented the "American System" of manufacturing stuff on an the assembly line, using interchangable parts. To be sure, this is subject to debate, thanks to Colt's habit of fabulizing, but Mr Rasenberger makes a formidable case for his version of the story. And he writes so well, swooping with apparent ease through wars both domestic and foreign, but especially those that so changed the United States in the second half of the 19th century. He irritated me by apologizing for the woke sin of writing about a weapon, and by referring to "muskets" in the hands of American soldiers during the Civil War, by which time any shoulder weapon with a grooved barrel was called a rifle. But those are small sins in one of the best biographies I've ever read.

Dick Lehr's Dead Reckoning: The Story of How Johnny Mitchell and His Fighter Pilots Took on Admiral Yamamoto and Avenged Pearl Harbor is a bit thinly sourced, using previously published books for the most part, and all of them in English. Why can't a best-selling author like Mr Lehr spare the few dollars it would take to read the excellent, semi-official Japanese histories of the Pacific War? Yeah, it takes time, but I did it with Flying Tigers, and John Lundstrom did it with The First Team, and the results were truly worthwhile.

To his credit, Mr Lehr does give us a deep dive into the life and thoughts of his American hero, Captain John Mitchell, whose life he pairs with that of the much older Isokoru Yamamoto, making it an almost personal rivalry even though the Japanese admiral has likely never heard of the lad from Mississippi. And Mr Lehr is another gifted story-teller. Like most devotees of what us older guys call The War (as if there never was and never could be another one), I already knew the outline of the story: that a squadron of Lockeed P-38 Lightning pilots fly to the very limit of their fighters' range, and with exquisite navigation (dead reckoning!) intercept the bomber containing Yamamoto; that one man returns to Guadalcanal boasting that he alone has dealt the admiral his reckoning with death; but that time, the recollelctions of Japanese pilots, and an inspection of the wreck finally prove that the credit belongs to another man. Nevertheless, I found Mr Lehr's narrative of the interception absolutely riveting. In his hands, it's a compelling story, no matter how many times it's been told. (And if you wait till August, will be told again in Dan Hampton's Operation Vengeance.)

There were about 20 books in our house when as I grew up, and they moved with us from town to town. I read many of them every year, especially Kenneth Roberts's majestic Northwest Passage, and even today can recall some of the novel's grislier scenes. In War on the Run: The Epic Story of Robert Rogers and the Conquest of America's First Frontier, John Ross purports to write a factual account of these events, but his version too is laced with fictions. That's especially true in his first chapter, though he soon settles down a bit, as the young New Hampshireman makes a name for himself and leaves a paper trail. Still, starting a sentence with "would have" and ending it with a footnote doesn't turn speculation into fact, and there are far too many of those sentences. Then too, Mr Ross wants us to believe that Major Rogers forged the template for the US Army Rangers of the Second World War and the Special Forces of today. But in almost every one of Rogers's battles, the Rangers were salted with detachments from the provincial forces and even from the British Army, who in most cases did as well as the green-clad troops he'd trained in backwoods combat. Rogers was certainly a natural warrior and a great leader of men, but he didn't invent a new kind of warfare so much as exemplify it. Neverthess, War on the Run is a rip-roaring story. Like so many great leaders, Major Rogers was his own worst enemy, spending money he didn't have and inspiring hate from his commanding officers. Blue skies! -- Daniel Ford

A Vision So Noble

Daniel Ford's books:

Cowboy: Interpreter, Soldier, Warlord, and One More Casualty of Our War in Vietnam
The Only War We've Got: Early Days in South Vietnam
Flying Tigers: Claire Chennault & His American Volunteers, 1941-1942
Tales of the Flying Tigers (think of it as a lengthy appendix to the history)
The Lady and the Tigers (Olga Greenlaw) o
Poland's Daughter: How I Learned About Love, War, and Exile
Glen Edwards: Diary of a Bomber Pilot
A Vision So Noble: John Boyd, the OODA Loop, and America's War on Terror
The Country Northward: A Hiker's Journal
The Greater America: An Epic Journey Through a Vibrant New Country (Ralph Paine)
~ ~ ~ ~
Michael's War: A Story of the Irish Republican Army
Remains: A Story of the Flying Tigers
Incident at Muc Wa: A Story of the Vietnam War
The High Country Illuminator: A Tale of Light and Darkness and the Ski Bums of Avalon

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Poland's Daughter

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