Paying the Price for Freedom
By Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Feb. 13, 2003 President Bush has said the war on terror is a war for freedom.
Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld has said the attacks on New York and the Pentagon were aimed at the values Americans hold dear.
Best-selling author Jeff Shaara says the "idea" of the United States of America is something worth fighting for, and if need be, dying for.
Shaara wants to ensure that Abraham Lincoln's "mystic chords of memory" reach from every patriot grave unto the 21st century generation.
He was in town Feb. 10 for the premiere of "Gods and Generals," a movie based on his best-selling 1996 book of the same name about the first years of the Civil War. He is the son of author Michael Shaara, whose novel on the Battle of Gettysburg, "The Killer Angels," won the 1975 Pulitzer Prize for fiction, became the basis of the 1993 film epic "Gettysburg" and is on Army Chief of Staff Gen. Eric Shinseki's recommended military reading list.
The younger Shaara said the main lessons of both books are that the United States of America is an idea and that Americans don't fight for territory or power or loot so much as for that idea.
"We are a nation of citizen soldiers," he said during a Pentagon interview. "Even if you are a professional soldier in this country, you are a citizen first.
"As such, you live in a system that you must understand is worth preserving," he continued. "Whether you live in the Bronx, or Columbus, Ohio, or Los Angeles, you live in a country that has been given to you by some extraordinary people."
"Freedom" is used so often that it becomes a cliche, he said. What it means in the United States is the ability to live and strive and take advantage of opportunities. It is the chance to better yourself or your family. It is the ability to walk down a street and attend the church you want, or go to the school of your choice, or buy the book you wish. "I don't think most soldiers have to be convinced about that," he said.
It's not about fighting for the king because he orders you, Shaara said. "It's about the power inside your own mind and heart for what this country means." It's not about defending land or going after territory.
"As Joshua Chamberlain says to the 2nd Maine (in "The Killer Angels"), 'I never saw land worth dying for.' But that's not what America fights for," he said. "This is the only country in the world founded on an intangible idea. George Washington was fighting for an idea. That's why more than two centuries later we still revere George Washington, because that shows the power of that idea."
He said U.S. service members should be particularly sensitive to that idea. They can contrast the rights and freedoms of people around the world with those enjoyed by citizens of the United States.
Shaara believes Americans are prepared for sacrifice. "It's a modern thing that if a single American is killed, it's the lead on the evening news," he said. "It is a tragedy. But if you look at every war we've ever had, it's the cost of war. Go back to Antietam. Some 20,000 Americans died on one day -- more than died at Normandy.
"You realize that as tragic as it is for one American to lose that one life, it is something we as a country have to give. We have to be willing to make that sacrifice, because what we are fighting for is worth dying for."
Michael Shaara died in 1988 and Jeff managed his father's estate through the filming of "Gettysburg." The film's director suggested the estate hire someone to write a sequel. Shaara decided to try his hand at writing historical fiction and to sandwich his father's masterpiece. His prequel, "Gods and Generals," appeared in 1995 and the sequel, "The Last Full Measure," was published in 1998.
The three books form a trilogy about the American Civil War. Shaara also wrote about the Mexican War in "Gone for Soldiers" and followed that with the American Revolution in "The Rise to Rebellion" and "The Glorious Cause."
The Civil War trilogy is not a dry recitation of facts. Rather, the books are character studies of the participants of the Civil War as only novelists could do. Shaara said he studies history carefully to ensure his account of events and facts are accurate. The fiction comes when he "gets into the mind" of the participants. "I use all original sources," he said.
He said the process of getting to know his characters sometimes takes weird forms. While researching "Gods and Generals," he stopped by the Thomas J. "Stonewall" Jackson Shrine at Guinea Station, Va. The memorial is the house in which the Confederate general died in May 1863.
"I never really considered that Jackson was going to be a primary character in 'Gods and Generals' until I went to the shrine," he said. He struck up a conversation with the park ranger on duty in the house. The ranger told him the story of Stonewall.
"Then he left me alone in the room where Jackson died," Shaara said. "The blanket on the bed is original, the clock on the mantelpiece is original, and I was standing in the silence listening to the ticking of this clock.
Jackson died of pneumonia that set in after his arm was amputated following the Battle of Chancellorsville. "Dr. Hunter Maguire (Jackson's physician) talks about everybody listening to this horrible sound of Jackson's breathing -- the raspy, terrible sound of this man's suffering," Shaara said. "And suddenly, it stops and the only sound in the room is the ticking of this clock. And everybody, of course, looked at the clock.
"And I realized I'm hearing the same sound in the same atmosphere," he continued. "That changed my life. I'm not trying to be melodramatic, but I realized I had to follow this story."
And he did, he left Guinea Station, drove to the Shenandoah Valley and followed Jackson's path from the Virginia Military Academy in Lexington, Va. "My job in the 21st century is not to tell you what happened, my job is to take you with me: to take you back to the 19th century and put you in a room with these people," he said.
"I've been criticized by some historians for putting words in the mouths of these characters, with creating the dialogue," he said. "Hey, my books are novels. The dialogue is fiction, but every word in every one of my books could have been spoken by these characters in this setting at this point in time, given what I've learned about the characters."
Shaara has been a frequent speaker at the service academies and in predominantly military settings. "The people I've met respond to these stories because these stories are describing them," he said. "This is not the dry stuff of history books. This is about individuals who rose to the occasion at various extraordinary times in our history and who responded to a crisis the way military people today hope that they would."
He said a West Point cadet asked him if the generation at the academy today would respond the same way their predecessors did, if they were capable of becoming the same kinds of charismatic leaders?
Shaara says yes. "The difference between the United States and Europe, for example, is that we do not have an aristocracy that is groomed to be our leadership," he said. "(Our leaders) come from everyday Americans. When you talk about people like Abraham Lincoln or Ulysses Grant or Robert E. Lee or George Washington or Benjamin Franklin, these are average Americans who rise to the occasion in an extraordinary way.
"It touches us because that's a part of who we are as Americans. It's a part of our national fabric that we all have opportunity. And if we have the ability, an opportunity will make itself felt."
Since the publication of his books on the American Revolution, Shaara said, many people have asked him what the Founding Fathers would think of the United States today.
"If you took Washington and Jefferson and Adams and Franklin and brought them to today, they would look around ... just the fact that those pieces of paper -- the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution -- are still revered today," he said. "The fundamental documents still exist. They still govern our system. They still work 227 years later. I think they'd be pretty impressed by that.
"The monumental significance of what they accomplished speaks for itself," he said. "We exist today as a society because of what they did.
Shaara is doing research now on World War I. He said he'll aim at doughboys rather than generals. He said that war is just another example of the price the United States of America was willing to pay for freedom.
"We have to be willing to pay the cost, because what we're fighting for is worth the cost," he said. "If we forget that sacrifice is as important to our system as everything else we have around us; if we stop making that sacrifice, we stop being a country. And I have a lot of faith in our citizens."