Review of reviews: Books
Book of the week
Scars of Independence: America’s Violent Birth
by Holger Hoock (Crown, $30)
The American Revolution was, it turns out, “far more violent than our usual memory of it allows,” said Adam Gopnik in The New Yorker. Holger Hoock, a history professor at the University of Pittsburgh, made it a mission to write the war’s violence back into the story of the nation’s birth, and though he’s “almost too delighted” with some of his grisly discoveries, no reader of his new book will ever again be able to imagine the Revolution as a “pop-gun” affair mounted exclusively by gentlemen in powdered wigs. In Hoock’s telling, the American rebels and their British counterparts both committed atrocities. “Page after page, the reader blanches while reading of massacres and counter-massacres, of floggings and rapes, of socket bayonets plunged into pitiful patriots.” What any of this tells us about the nation born from that crucible isn’t clear, but it does inspire a rethinking.
“Hoock plays no favorites,” said Chris Vognar in The Dallas Morning News. In an early scene, rebels in Boston pull a hated Tory sympathizer from his home, beat him with sticks, cover him in burning-hot tar, and then whip him. In one of the book’s “most gripping” passages, British soldiers attack a sleeping cavalry unit in Old Tappan, N.J., and take no prisoners, disemboweling their defenseless victims with thrust after thrust of their bayonets. On the ground, this was a civil war, with neighbor killing neighbor and violence begetting violence. Patriots massacred American Indians and vice versa; the British treated American prisoners so cruelly that as many as 19,000 died in custody. A critical difference between the sides was that the rebels seized on every British atrocity as a propaganda opportunity. Though the British frequently triumphed on the battlefield, “the Americans won the PR war in a rout.”
In the end, the American side suffered five times more deaths, on a per capita basis, than the U.S. would sustain during World War II. But Hoock never does show how the violence of the Revolutionary War compares with other wars for independence, said Glenn Altschuler in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. He also leaves readers at times unsure which primary sources were spreading propaganda and which we can trust. Still, he’s written an important book. A product of “prodigious” research, Scars of Independence is “surely right” that whitewashing the Revolutionary War of its traumas and terrors leads us to underestimate the violence that nation building usually entails, and causes us to overestimate American exceptionalism.