Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

Why Men Fight

A new book takes stock of history's last stands and draws questions about Americans' will to defend their nation today.
King Leonidas

Last Stands: Why Men Fight When All is Lost, by Michael Walsh, St. Martin’s Press, 2020, 358 pages

At the narrow pass of Thermopylae, Western civilization as we know it was made possible when 300 Spartans fought to the death to hold back the forces of the Persian Empire. Greek soldiers, defending home and hearth and honor, did the impossible and fought the massive multicultural and multi-tongued army of Eastern mercenaries to a standstill. Even in death and defeat, they bought time for united Greek forces to muster their strength and, in the end, win the war. What Western history would look like had they lost is difficult to imagine.

Michael Walsh, in Last Stands: Why Men Fight When All is Lost, says that his book is not a typical military history, and this is a good thing. If more military histories were written with the page-turning readability of this volume, the genre would be a richer one. Walsh’s mission is not so much to chronicle some of the most famous battles against all odds in Western history as it is to explore the spirit that causes men not to collapse under the pressure of insurmountable odds but rather to fight, methodically and ferociously, until the very end. Walsh finds at least part of the answer in the elemental nature of masculinity and the role it has played for millennia:

The answer…is surprisingly simple: they fight for themselves, for their brothers-in-arms, and therefore for their women and children and for their country, which is the expression of the family. Without women there are no children, and without children, there is no future.

Walsh’s choice of battles is nearly pitch-perfect—a balanced blend of familiar and obscure, of ancient and modern. He has a gift for painting details of the fighting with fine brush-strokes while showing the entire canvas of the broader context in which it was set and the consequences for what we know as our history. Consider his epitaph on Rome’s final razing of Carthage in 146 B.C. even though Roman legions had earlier been annihilated in a humiliating defeat at an ill-fated last stand against the Carthaginian general Hannibal at Cannae in 216 B.C.: “Not a trace remains of Carthage. The cultural results of war are profound. Would Christianity have penetrated a Baal-worshipping polyglot Carthaginian Mediterranean?”

In most of the battles, those making last stands were not only defeated but annihilated, though often those defeats were followed by victories in the overall wars of which they were a part. Walsh writes moving accounts that involve direct conflict between the West and Islam—the medieval tale of Roland’s rear-guard action against the Moors during the time of Charlemagne, the little-known Siege of Szigetvzár in which Hungarians manned the ramparts against a Turkish invasion of Europe, and Lord Gordon’s ill-fated defense of Khartoum—each of which was followed by decisive victories for Western forces. But Walsh is perhaps at his finest when recounting battles from his own country’s history: Texans at the Alamo, General Grant at Shiloh, and Custer at the Battle of the Little Bighorn. And he brackets the book with scenes from a last stand in which his own father took part: that of the U.S. Marines at the Chosin Reservoir in Korea.

Much of the color that Walsh provides in Last Stands comes from his recounting of the “afterlife” of each conflict in art and legend. As a long-time art critic, Walsh is adept at leavening his writing with examples from movies, television, opera, oratorios, epic poems…wherever those last stands were immortalized. Such portrayals have often served to inspire yet another generation of young men to be prepared to make their own last stands if need be.

I recall, as a teenager contemplating application to an American military academy, having a heated argument with my parents. They were strong people of the land and old-school Robert Taft Republicans with no use for foreign wars. I recall my father asking “why on earth would you want to do that?” and my mother saying “I don’t want you to die!” Infused with Cold War idealism, my retort was a line that could have come straight out of Walsh’s book: “there are things worse than death.”

It wouldn’t be true to say that most young men are thinking purely, or even mostly, about defending their country when they join the military. There is a call of duty more elemental even than home and hearth and country—it is about being a man. About that motivation, Walsh writes with admirable eloquence.

For reasons of my own, I ended up taking a different path to receiving a commission to protect and defend my country, and even today I can’t disagree with my youthful desire to undergo that rite of passage. But I came to a parallel and inseparable view on a cold December day in 1992 when I was flying over the Atlantic Ocean en route to a supporting role in President George H.W. Bush’s Somalia action. That view was reinforced during an even longer flight over the Pacific the following spring to be part of a show of force in Thailand during UN-sponsored elections in Cambodia that were being threatened by the Khmer Rouge.

Young men’s willingness to fight and die holds efficacy only so long as there is also honor in a country’s leadership class. While one can argue with justification that a Europe dominated by Germany after 1918 would have been a place less conducive to the type of liberty that we Anglo-Americans treasure, we also will never know what countries like the UK would be like today had not much of an entire generation of its most patriotic, dutiful, devout, and courageous youth been annihilated on the killing fields of the Great War.

On a smaller scale, we have seen America’s boldest killed and maimed in a series of regime change wars that began with President George H.W. Bush’s 1989 invasion of Panama. Those conflicts have never really drawn to a close, even with our current president having determined to end them and his predecessor feigning the desire to do so. Increasingly, senior elected officials and their advisors have little or no military experience of their own—they are playing war games with someone else’s sons, and now daughters.

Men’s willingness—even eagerness—to fight is channeled, in healthy societies, toward the defense of their home against aggression. Losing that willingness to fight and defend—not just with guns, but with words and actions in other, less dramatic kinds of last stands—will spell the end of America’s story just as surely as the end of the Roman Republic was sealed when the Roman citizen-soldier was replaced by foreign mercenaries.

The qualities of which Walsh writes are real, and they are every bit as vital to a civilization as he says. They are, however, virtues that can be cynically exploited by those who have little interest in the defense of the United States against the kinds of existential threats that would inspire American men to take up arms and go willingly to their deaths if need be.

Bradley Anderson writes from San Francisco, California.