Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Book Review: My Three Years with Eisenhower

Title: My Three Years with Eisenhower

Author: Harry C. Butcher

Date: 1946

Publisher: Simon & Schuster

ISBN: none

Length: 876 pages with 34-page index

Quote: “I have seen you several times in pictures and movies with General Eisenhower. You're always away back in the background. Why didn't you get up front?”

“In the background” as aide to the future President, Captain Butcher was keeping a “secret” diary (dictated to a secretary and redacted for publication in U.S. newspapers), participating in what he reports as the general tendency among the soldiers in that “World War” to cheer for all the other Allied leaders and victories while talking as if their own leader was basically winning the whole war. From his perspective, Roosevelt and Churchill and then-ally Stalin were merely supporters in Eisenhower's war.

One of the more endearing bits of a rather dry story is that Butcher was aware of this at the time. He knew in 1942 that his reports on his superordinate's role might be used as a political campaign document some day. So did the future President Dwight David “Ike” Eisenhower, and sometimes they disagreed about what to report. In the Army, Eisenhower used “Army language,” but in reports he preferred to have it edited out.

One anecdote (pages 716-717) shows Butcher covering his chief's back side a little too well. In the 1940s drinking alcohol was legal even in the United States, but it was still considered disreputable (as, in my part of the U.S., it still is). Fans had been known to send General Eisenhower wine or whisky. Believing that he needed to be fully alert at all times, the general had sent the bottles o'cheer to hospitals for the wounded. One day in 1944, however, a congressional delegation had brought the general various comforts from home—American food treats including sausage and hominy grits, and a bottle of bourbon. Butcher told a reporter to say, “General Eisenhower sent the whisky to a near-by field hospital.” Eisenhower was “displeased”: “[E]very member of the Military Affairs Committee would...say 'the fellow is a **** liar.'” Politicians themselves, they'd surely understand, Butcher soothed; in any case, “What did happen to the whisky?” The Congressmen drank it, Eisenhower said.

I chortled...for, I think, the only time, while reading this book. What Butcher's diary is, and was meant to be, was History. Military History. Every bit as detached as it was in your school history book, only in more detail. Intended for reference not for pleasure, although those who really Liked Ike would be expected to skim through it.

Well...this fat little book tells me more than its first owner probably expected it to. As mentioned earlier I know a lady who had been buying books to display in a furniture store, decided there were too many books, and demanded that I take them off her hands or she'd send them to the landfill. My Three Years with Eisenhower was one of the books she'd bought, obviously, for its authentic early twentieth century look. It hadn't been perfectly preserved—it's foxed, a few pages crinkled from damp, the binding giving that crumbly feeling that warned me to lay it flat on a table and turn its pages with care. I felt no qualms about creasing or even dog-earing pages...until I came to the first few uncut pages, in the second or so hundred pages. Commercial publishers have, for a long time, been printing several pages of a book on a single big sheet of paper—standard-sized books, typically, consist of 16 two-sided pages that started out as one big page—and into the twentieth century it was common practice to leave it to the first reader of the book to separate the pages with a knife as s/he read. This proved that the book was really new. (It was also common practice to burn all the books of anyone who'd been positively diagnosed with a contagious disease. Very few if any serious diseases have been spread by handling books, but many people preferred to be safe rather than sorry.) And My Three Years with Eisenhower had lasted from 1946 to 2017 with about half a dozen pages uncut. I am the very first person ever to read the copy on the desk where I'm typing this.

Let's just say that, after cutting the pages, I became more mindful about creasing them. The book was not in “new” condition but I handled it even more gently.

If you set out to read this book, and were not able to finish it during an entire presidential administration, you'd not be the first. You already know the plot: Algeria, Italy, Germany, the White House. Details you might want to use in an historical study are listed in the index, provided that you know which people and places you're looking for. (You may or may not have been interested in knowing that General Eisenhower managed to keep both dogs and cats, overseas; Butcher introduces two of each and explains how three of the animals got their names.)

There's something ineffably icky, for me, about official military history. It's dry, detached—as it has to be. Military leaders live in comfortable houses, throughout a modern war, and don't even have to see an actual combat zone. Eisenhower thought “Telegraph Cottage” needed a dog, and named the dog Telek; Butcher thought “Telek” sounded like a brand name for a toothbrush; Eisenhower cheerfully observed that the dog's tail looked a bit like a toothbrush...Yonder are men shot through their eyes. The heavens veil their face from Man's intolerable race, drifts through my mind. No, I don't prefer the memoirs or reports of those actually wading through the very special war mud that was compounded of ordinary dirt, garbage and bodywastes, plus the liquid effluvia from human corpses. I would prefer that humans figured out that there have to be better ways to resolve disputes, and limit population, than war.

Read an honest war story and say that making a third baby is less a “perversion” than any other sexual act of which humans are capable, if you can. Military history is written by people sitting at a distance sufficient that they can go on giving other things higher priority than ending the practice (and the felt need) of war. Wars are won by people capable of forgiving their leaders for bickering about the best name to give a puppy while those people, themselves, are using a friend's body as a shield. It is better to win wars than to lose wars, and we respect and thank the people who fought the wars...but when will we evolve an acceptance of better ways to thin our population down?

Sorry. Here is a war story, not necessarily dishonest for its distance from what your grandfather probably remembered. Buy it if it's useful to you. I've left a few pages of the index uncut, and I promise I didn't cough on the book. It's not a Fair Trade Book and will cost $5 per book, $5 per package, and $1 per online payment; two copies of this book might or might not fit into one package but several smaller books would fit in alongside one copy.