I just finished David McCollough's history 1776, which had sat on my shelves for years until I heard a lecture by the author on NPR. What did I learn from it?
Anyone who wants to write fiction, or be a story-teller of any kind, should read history . . . or, at least, history the way McCullough write it. Like most of my contemporaries, I suffered through incredibly dry history classes that consisted of unenthusiastic teachers reciting encyclopedic facts about events from long ago, with token efforts at explaining the "context" and "significance" of particular events. That sort of thing should convince you that plot is not what really drives a story. It's not enough to tell people what happens – you have to tell them what it's like to be there. Some of that what-it's-like effect comes from the facts of the matter, but most of it is coming from the minds of the characters: what people think about what's happening, what they are hoping and fearing, who they like and dislike, what are the events that change their minds about things. That is the heart and soul of McCullough's book, which is packed with excerpts from letters, journals, diaries, and every kind of public and private writing from the participants in the war.
I've never thought much about keeping diaries – I usually had no illusions that the events of my day-to-day life were worth chronicling. But this book made me think better of it. One of the tricky things about history is you're never quite sure when you're witnessing it.
The war depended, from beginning to end, on morale. Morale is one of those words that have been ruined by management consultants, now thought of as a squishy phantasm of HR departments. But for a volunteer army fighting such a prolonged, punishing battle against formidable odds, morale was everything. There was no such thing as stop-loss; when enlistment periods were up, the men could go home if they wished. Or sooner, since desertion was commonplace. That meant the men must continue to believe in the cause. Talk about spin; the whole endeavor was hanging on whether people believed in the war, believed it could be won, and that they believed that other people believed it. The real action in the war was taking place within the minds of men.
One also has a newfound respect for intelligence in war. So much depended on knowing what the enemy was doing, or going to do. The balance of power shifted often based on a night movement -- the colonial army seizing the heights above Boston, forcing a British evacuation, or the British stealing up Jamaica Pass to take Long Island, or Washington crossing the Delaware to surprise the Hessians.
The struggle for intelligence also showed how decisive decisiveness was. Washington's political sensitivity made him ideal for working with the Continental Congress, but also kept him from giving direct and decisive orders to unruly generals. The only complaint any of Washington's many admirers had was that he wouldn't make up his damned mind.
Put those three factors together -- morale, intelligence, decisiveness -- and you realize the importance of individual people. Calling George Washington "the father of our country" is not jingoistic hyperbole -- he really was the guy who pulled it off, who held the whole venture together in the face of overwhelming odds, and perhaps more importantly, against his own doubt and despair. Heroes I had never even heard of before -- Henry Knox, Nathanael Greene -- made decisions on which the whole war turned (and neither of whom had ever been soldiers before, much less generals).
That, I think, is the reason David McCullough writes. His goals for the book, I imagine, were these:
"Remember that getting our own country was really, really hard."
"Remember that it was the result of individual people putting everything on the line."
"Remember that you too could make the difference for everyone, some day."