- Historic Sites
One Englishman’s America
A distinguished military historian’s forty-year quest to plumb our essential mystery: the “secret of a way of life different from any other lived on earth”
February/March 1996 | Volume 47, Issue 1
I left the South with regret. I was to spend several months longer in the United States, but after the mystery of the South the spell had somehow gone. I felt my future life was in England, with parents, sisters, brother, contemporaries, known places and things. I was not brave enough for the great adventure of emigration. As the American winter of 1957 began to cast the leaves from the trees, I took ship aboard the old Queen Elizabeth and sailed homeward.
I thought I should never see America again. For twenty yeans I did not. I had conceived the odd aim of becoming a military historian and quickly identified on my return that the only place where I might be paid for pursuing my private interest was the Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst, Britain’s West Point. At twenty-five I joined the Sandhurst staff, settled down to learn my trade, began an exploration of the anthropology of the British army, which remains a lifelong interest, married, raised children, and experimented with writing. In 1972 I started to write a book eventually entitled The Face of Battle . In 1976 it was published, and shortly afterward I found myself a celebrated author, curiously more celebrated in America than at home. The Face of Battle was chosen as a Bookof-the-Month in June 1977, bringing me enough money to pay my elder son’s fees at the expensive boarding school at which I had imprudently entered him. Its publication also brought me an invitation to lecture at the National War College in Washington. Other invitations followed, to the University of Chicago, to West Point, to Harvard. I was to see America again after all.
America after twenty years made an impression as indelible as America in 1957, but different. I was different, less lighthearted but more self-assured. America was different, less itself, more like anywhere else. I regretted both changes. There could be no Sonnenreise for me again, no pearl-like mornings crossing the St. Johns River toward Bay St. Louis, barefooted evenings on the beach, hopeless gazings at blonde girl-children whose heroes were the teenage victors of yesterday’s regatta. Equally, there could be no old America again, the America of Lumber City whose inhabitants thought only Americans spoke English. Americans had ceased to look American. The faces were the same, the gait, the gestures, but the American haircut—the coir mat crew cut, the iron perm—had gone, and so had distinctively American clothes, the waistless suit, the universal shirtwaister dress, bobby socks, enormous shoes. Americans dressed like Europeans, just as we all dressed rather like Americans. The great age of international air travel had begun. In my twenties I had been almost unique among my English contemporaries in having traveled widely in the United States, in having been there at all. In the 1970s an American summer tour was becoming an ingredient of student life; in the 1980s all my children would cross the Atlantic quite as casually as they would cross the English Channel. Americans were making the journey in the opposite direction in large numbers, and Europe was becoming demystified for them in the process. The extraordinary inwardness of America, which was part of the spell it had cast upon me, was dissolving. Casements, not so magic when opened, were letting in light from both directions.
America was changing, too, because its people were changing. In the 1950s there had been only white Americans and black Americans. By the 1970s a new tide of immigration was beginning—as it also was in Europe, until 1950 a completely white continent—to blur the division; there were Chinese, Indian, and Hispanic faces on the streets in increasing numbers. The most important racial change, however, had been in relations between black and white. Returning on a book promotion tour to Atlanta, a city where in 1957 the only black person with whom I had passed the time of day was the barman in the Atlanta Athletic Club, I found that all the interviewers who gave me time on their television or radio programs were black. Well educated, professional, they gave no hint of having passed through a revolution; such was their self-assurance that all the questions I longed to ask about the transformation of their expectations, in less than half my lifetime, died in my throat.
But then for me the time of questioning, of the nightlong conversation, of heartfelt revelation and inquiry, was over. I was older. I was also a transient, coming and going, living on impressions rather than deep experience. From 1977 onward I began to visit the United States two or three or sometimes five times a year, at first to lecture, then also to promote books or to write for the London newspaper that, after a long academic career, I joined in 1986. I gathered impressions in sheaves, first and most plentifully about American university and college life. Its richness has never ceased to surprise or to delight me. In the England of my youth there had only been twenty universities; at the beginning of the nineteenth century, when college founding was almost as American as town building, there had been only two. On the great circuit of the college lecture tour into which literary success cast me I encountered the results of the American passion for higher education in wonderful variety.