Last Stands, subtitled “Why Men Fight When All is Lost”, by Michael Walsh covers much more than the military history the title implies. The promo from the publisher explained that the book explores “…historical battles in which soldiers chose death over dishonor.”
As a history major in college and having spent a career in the military, this immediately appealed to me. As I got into the books 300+ pages I found not only great stories of battles, but an exploration of Western culture, the role of war, and the meaning and nature of the masculine experience.
The book touched me personally, was intellectually challenging, and was a fun read because of Walsh’s erudite, yet amusing and conversational style. It is that rare occurrence, a history book which is totally relevant to headlines and controversies of today.
Walsh’s past work includes 16 books, both fiction and non-fiction, and screenplays, including writing the narration for the PBS special about Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. He has also written columns for national publications, including serving as classical music critic for Time Magazine.
Taking Me Back
One of the first of more than a dozen battles described in Last Stands involves Romans and Carthaginians at Cannae. As I progressed in the narrative, I thought, “I remember this!” I traveled back in my mind to an ROTC classroom in the UCLA Men’s Gym. There I had first learned about this battle and had its military science lessons explained to me.
Walsh, however, goes beyond what the Professor of Military Science explained. He places these military encounters in their broader cultural context. The building in which I first learned about the Battle of Cannae, the UCLA Men’s Gym, is now called The Student Activities Center. That name change must certainly be a part of the broader abolition of traditional masculinity from current culture and education. Walsh’s book, among other things, examines this change.
Each of the book’s chapters, progressing chronologically from 480 B.C. to 1950 A.D, focuses on one or two battles. Walsh analyzes the tactics and strategic implications of the battles, where sufficient detail has come down through the ages to allow this. He also uses the battles to explore the motivations of the warriors and the larger social, military, and civilizational aspects illuminated by these clashes.
“Chapter 12 – Not One Step Back”, exemplifies his methodology. The chapter tells the story of the Battle of Pavlov’s House, part of the Battle of Stalingrad in 1942. This battle, between two million-man armies, resulted in the death of over a million people during its seven-month progression.
This battle not only altered the course of the war, but set into motion changes which would dominate Europe and much of the world for the next fifty years.
Walsh illuminates this battle through the experience of one soldier, Yakov Fedotovich Pavlov, a Junior Sergeant in the Russian army, who had been an accountant before the war.
Having set the scene, with Pavlov and 24 men defending a building from the Germans, he then pulls back, to explain why we know about this soldier. As part of that explanation, we need to learn about Russia and its relationship with Germany. From there we travel back through World War I, the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-05, and the Crimean War of 1853.
We learn about Czarist Russia, the Russian Revolution and the role Germany played in it. Then, this leads into more about Germany and the rise of Hitler. The invasion of Russia by Germany and the significance of the Battle of Stalingrad gives us the big picture.
Finally, Walsh returns to the Battle of Pavlov’s House, then finishes with how the situation was exploited by propagandists and considers questions about soldiers’ valor and dedication, even when fighting for a probably evil cause.
Multiply that by 12 to get a feel for what you can learn from this read.
You might be thinking, “Wait, I already have a college degree, I don’t need to take Western Civ again.” Don’t worry. Walsh makes these tales engaging and, where appropriate, even entertaining. He creates ties to popular culture, like the films Khartoum and The Alamo, and explains where they got it right, wrong, or no one knows for sure.
His prose is conversational and at times funny. He describes the leader of British forces at the 1885 Battle of Khartoum as “…one of the most remarkable men in British history, the enigmatic, deeply religious, mercurial, chain-smoking, heavy drinking, idiosyncratically Christian zealot, latently suicidal, and very probably chastely homosexual, Charles George ‘Chinese’ Gordon.” And that wasn’t even the entire sentence.
He scores high in historiography as well. For instance, he compares the last moments of Gordon, as portrayed by Charlton Heston in Khartoum, to alternate historical descriptions. The book is extensively footnoted and contains a series of excerpts from historical texts at the end, should you wish to explore earlier descriptions of these last stands.
As you read Last Stands, unless you try to avoid it, your vocabulary will get a boost. I consider myself to have an excellent vocabulary. Yet, I stuck Post-It Notes on fifteen words as I worked my way through the book. As an example, within five pages, Walsh uses the words “tocsin”, “adumbration”, and “evanescent”. If you know all of those, my hat is off to you.
Last Stands, published by St. Martin’s Press, can be found in hardcover, audiobook, narrated by the author, and eBook versions in all the usual places.