Abel on Walsh, 'Last Stands: Why Men Fight When All Is Lost'

Michael Walsh
Jonathan Abel

Michael Walsh. Last Stands: Why Men Fight When All Is Lost. New York: St. Martin's Press, 2020. 368 pp. $28.99 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-250-21708-0

Reviewed by Jonathan Abel (Command and General Staff College, Ft. Leavenworth) Published on H-War (January, 2021) Commissioned by Margaret Sankey (Air University)

Printable Version: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=56033

“It Doesn’t Matter ... Whether the Stories Really Happened: What Matters Is That They Are True”

Michael Walsh’s Last Stands: Why Men Fight When All Is Lost is a new entry into the popular history market, aimed at securing an audience interested in military history and military affairs. It relates the stories of fifteen battles, ranging from classical Greece to World War II, from the author’s perspective. These serve as case studies of the author’s thesis, which purports to be to reawaken the masculinity of the West, and of America specifically. The result is a problematic text that does little more than epitomize the pop culture history of America after 1950 and impregnate it with the author’s troublesome views.

Walsh’s stated theme is to use his case studies to illustrate examples of masculinity: “this book is a testament ... to the concept of manliness itself” (p. 2). However, this waxes and wanes throughout the text. Some chapters, like the ones on Thermopylae and Roncevaux Pass, make frequent recourse to masculinity, while it is largely absent in others, like those on Masada/Warsaw and Rorke’s Drift/Khartoum. As a result, it cannot be said to be a consistent theme of the work, despite Walsh’s stated intention and the book’s cover quote from Victor Davis Hanson. 

Instead, Walsh’s primary theme is a variety of neo-Huntingtonianism (or, given the author’s age, perhaps simple Huntingtonianism). He posits a clash of civilizations between a civilized, Christian, individualist West and an uncivilized, Muslim, collectivist East determined to destroy it. In his introduction, Walsh admits that he has curated his case studies to include only those that support this thesis. When his examples allow, this theme is literal, as in the case of the largely Christian Habsburg defenders of Szigetvár against the Muslim Ottomans in 1566 or the Christian British forces killed at Khartoum by the Mahdi’s forces in 1885. In cases where the analogy cannot be direct, Walsh finds recourse to myth to make it so; thus the 778 Battle of Roncevaux Pass becomes a Christian-versus-Muslim fight via the later Song of Roland, and the chapter on nineteenth-century conflicts in Mexico posits a second Reconquista of the former lands of New Spain by current Mexico, echoing the Christian Reconquista of Umayyad Iberia. When the neo-Huntington thesis cannot be forced, Walsh provides surrogates like the “savage” tribes of Little Bighorn; the voracious Protestants of the 1527 Sack of Rome; or the implacable, faceless, pagan empires of Achaemenid Persia, Rome, and Nazi Germany. The result of this bifurcation is a narrative that is succinct and pointed in some passages and meandering in others.

Last Stands is not a work of academic history or historiography nor does it make any pretense of being so. Therefore, it lacks the scholarly apparatus found in such works. It does not have a bibliography, and most of the footnotes are elaborations of Walsh’s points rather than citations of sourcing. As a result, Walsh’s sourcing must be gleaned from the text. He makes use of primary source documents, usually a single main source for each chapter/case study. Portions of these are printed in an appendix to the book, which begins with a non-sequitur citation from the Christian Bible.

Few secondary sources appear in the work or its notes. According to the text, Walsh relies most on Edward Creasy’s Fifteen Decisive Battles of the World (1851) as his model, and indeed Last Stands could be said to be an entry into the “great battles” canon of popular military history. Walsh draws his cultural and social analysis from the works of British writer Paul Johnson, whom he references regularly. Most of the remaining referenced secondary works are either non-scholarly works or ones that are old, like Edward Gibbon’s The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, published in the late 1700s, or J. E. A. Whitman’s How Wars are Fought, from 1941. 

Walsh’s choices of sourcing lead to puzzling passages and conclusions throughout, as illustrated by three examples from his introductory chapter. He presents the theme of soldiers’ motivations, a common one in military history, popular and scholarly, but fails to reference the seminal work on the topic by S. L. A. Marshall, among others. Walsh uses the aforementioned work by Whitman to illustrate the immutable nature of war rather than referencing Carl von Clausewitz, the preeminent scholar of the unchanging nature of war, even to popular historians. In the same chapter, Walsh refers to the “afterlife” of a battle, citing theater critic Jonathan Miller’s Subsequent Performances (1986) and seemingly unaware of the vast, cross-disciplinary field of memory studies. Occasionally, this presents a missed opportunity; for example, Walsh contends that “no one should ‘take care’ of a man once he hits puberty and grows into what we call manhood,” an argument that might benefit from an understanding of the related views on child-rearing of Jean-Jacques Rousseau (p. 15). Finally, many of Walsh’s references and footnotes are only tangentially connected to the arguments in which they are embedded, particularly the references to fiction. The result is a sporadically sourced book with little connection to any work beyond those of Creasy, Johnson, and, ultimately, Samuel Huntington.

Thus, the text of Last Stands illustrates that Walsh made little effort to locate his study or arguments within historical literature, particularly historiography. Instead, beyond the few aforementioned secondary sources, he prefers to make use of works of fiction, both in print and film, to support his arguments. These range from authors like Virgil and Thomas Mann to John Ford westerns and Zach Snyder’s Thermopylae film 300 (2006). He thus appears to have wholeheartedly adopted the title of this review, drawn from the text, as his modus operandi: “it doesn’t matter ... whether the stories really happened. What matters is that they are true” (p. 105). Indeed, Walsh’s case studies appear to have been selected primarily because they almost all have such cultural productions related to them. The Siege of Szigetvár is an excellent example of this; Walsh appears to have selected it in place of a similar case study like the 1453 Fall of Constantinople because it allows him to draw a direct analogy between Szigetvár and the Syrian refugee crisis in late 2010s Europe. Worse still for an ostensible work of history, in several chapters, most notably on Thermopylae and Roncevaux, he uses these fictional narratives in place of history. Thus, Thermopylae, like 300, becomes a heroic stand of individuals against mechanistic, slave-owning Persians despite the fact that classical Greece was literally built by slaves, and Roncevaux Pass, like The Song of Roland, becomes a heroic fight of Christian against raving Muslim hordes despite the historical battle’s being between Franks and Basques. As a result, Last Stands is more a history of the popular memory of the battles presented, as filtered through Walsh’s own views, rather than a history of them per se.

As is unfortunately the case in many works aimed at a popular audience, Walsh’s text suffers from numerous infelicities of historical analysis and fact throughout. Examples from its second chapter illuminate the issue. Page 49 finds that the “Roman civil war was fought largely in Greece” despite the various civil wars that plagued Rome throughout the first century BCE taking place across the Mediterranean, including, but certainly not predominantly, in Greece. The following page states that Muslims destroyed the Great Library at Alexandria, the “great seat of classical and early Christian learning,” despite that institution’s largely having been destroyed by the Romans in successive conflicts beginning with Julius Caesar, and one of its successors, the Serapeum, notoriously having been destroyed by Christians. Finally, page 55 argues that “never had Republican Rome fielded an army of such size [as at Cannae], nor would it; neither would Imperial Rome”; Walsh is apparently unaware of the 105 BCE Battle of Arausio, in which Republican Rome lost an army of probably over 120,000, far more than the 50,000 to 80,000 traditionally ascribed to the defeat at Cannae. 

While the above serves to illustrate the density of errors in a particular passage, they are found in most chapters. Walsh states that Switzerland “won independence from the Holy Roman Empire in 1499”; while Switzerland did win a degree of autonomy from imperial taxation and law in that year, it remained a part of the empire until 1648 (p. 142). He finds a “Cathedral of Saint Sophia” in Constantinople; while occasional reference may be made to a “Saint Sophia,” the Hagia Sophia was dedicated not to a person but rather to “Holy Sophia,” the anthropomorphization of Wisdom in the Christian tradition (p. 164). He makes Abu Bakr Abdullah ibn Uthman to be “a friend of Muhammad” without mentioning that he was also Muhammad’s father-in-law (p. 269). He argues that China “has been defeated many times by its neighbors”; while China has suffered from two notable invasions, those of the Mongols in the thirteenth century and the Japanese in the 1930s, China has instead been in the opposite position, exerting hegemony over its neighbors, for the vast majority of its history (p. 16n4). He contends that “Western soldiers do not have to be prodded into battle by political commissars. They do not have to be conscripted on a vast and permanent scale. They need not be propagandized to come to the defense of the homeland,” seemingly unaware that all of those occurred in French revolutionary armies, to cite just one example to the contrary (p. 19). In another chapter, Walsh makes Vercingetorix a German rather than a Gaul of the Arverni tribe. Finally, “the defeat of the Spanish Armada by British forces” occurred in 1588, according to Walsh, despite Great Britain’s not coming into existence for another 120 years, via the 1707 Act of Union (p. 184).

Some of Walsh’s mistakes are simply infelicities or unclear prose, as some of the above examples might be. Others are outright errors, whether of ignorance or deliberate. As is also unfortunately the case with similar works, they might be excused, or at least contextualized, if the work were sourced from the proper historiography or contained a scholarly apparatus beyond footnotes elaborating the author’s in-text points, which it does not.

The result of these issues is that Last Stands lacks a coherent narrative or thematic flow. In addition, Walsh introduces a curious and uneven theme of sexuality and its relationship to masculine warfare, a theme not discussed in depth in the introduction or conclusion. He bookends the text with stories of his father, a marine veteran of the Korean War, that, while interesting, are only very loosely tied to the book’s arguments. At times, Walsh wanders from coherent narration altogether, particularly when referencing a film, television show, or work of literature, ostensibly in support of his arguments. This is most apparent when he uses a passage to present his own views on a topic, whether related to the case study or not. To cite one example, the chapter on the Sack of Rome includes a note that opines that a “schism [in the Catholic Church] may well result ... between observant Catholics who reject the ‘reforms’ of Vatican II and the current curia. Sedevacantism looms,” a passage that bears no relation to the case study and seems to exist only to signal Walsh’s approval for the former faction in modern Catholic politics (p. 144n4). In other places, Walsh peppers the text with opinions, particularly in the conclusion, on issues ranging from the removal of problematic statues in America to “the now-obsolete United Nations” and “Hegelian Marxis[m]” (pp. 16-17, 305). Ultimately, Last Stands reads less like a coherent narrative or argument and more like a recitation of Walsh’s beliefs on issues both macro and micro. 

Despite the above, the most significant issues in Last Stands relate to the author’s views on gender, religion, and race. In this regard, the book contains numerous elements and arguments that are problematic at best and objectionable at worst. Collectively, they present a significant negative challenge to the reader. Problems abound in Walsh’s application of gender dynamics throughout the work. He examines his stated theme of masculinity uncritically, seemingly assuming that all instances and expressions of traditional, combative masculinity are positive and that any factor that disrupts or denies that is negative. In this vein, he relies on tired tropes of gender expression, roles, and propriety. For example, he decries the “sumptuously feminized West,” “capon-voiced NPR commentator[s],” and “the transformation of men into women and women into men, at will,” which he finds to be “as audacious as it is insane” (pp. 8, 15, 17). He identifies gender solely with biology, making no effort to differentiate it from sex. He argues that heroism “is, at root, about masculinity,” contending that “women can be physically heroic ... but most are not, by nature, martial” (pp. 12, 33). Instead, he would leave war to men: “to be a male ... is to be born if not raised, Spartan-like, with an understanding that the world is not your friend but your adversary or your enemy” (p. 15). This argument extends to the point of anti-history, as Walsh refuses to acknowledge that women have at times played significant roles in combat, whether the women of Dahomey or the female soldiers of the Red Army in World War II, for example. 

Equally problematic are Walsh’s views on Islam. Throughout Last Stands, Walsh evinces a profound Islamophobia, which manifests itself in the pernicious (neo-)Huntingtonianism noted above. In his introduction, he refers to Islam as “a seventh-century Arabian Peninsula faith that combines the pertinent elements of both Judaism and Christianity,” seemingly denying the legitimacy of the religion (p. 20). He refers to Islam as both “metastasizing” and, frequently, as “recrudescent,” the latter an obscure word that appears to have been chosen for the homophonous nature of its second syllable. He argues that Islam rendered “the [Ottoman] Turkish word ... nearly worthless” (p. 168). While the work is dedicated to celebrating the individualism of various Western heroes, it presents Islam as a massive, faceless movement whose adherents share the same radical beliefs and remorselessly evangelize it across the world. On the rare occasion that he does characterize a Muslim, as in the case of Suleiman the Magnificent, Walsh finds the Ottoman sultan dying “un-mourned at first and unburied as well, just another oriental satrap,” drawing a thinly veiled connection to the Achaemenid kings Darius and Xerxes (pp. 179-80).

This stilted view of Islam leads Walsh to conclusions that are suspect at best throughout the work. For example, he notes the presence of “Islamic slave traders” in East African history without mentioning any other reason for exploration or travel, implying that Muslims went to East Africa only to trade in slaves. Elsewhere, he falls prey to the oft-repeated trope that “France ... is becoming palpably less Christian and French, and increasingly Muslim,” despite the facts that France’s 2020 population is only around 6 percent Muslim, a number that has grown only slowly over decades, and that many of France’s Muslims adhere to the principles of laïcité (p. 119). 

Most troubling are Walsh’s views on race. Throughout Last Stands, he puts the word racism in quotes, implying that it does not exist or has been invented. In the same vein, he uses words that are dated at best and offensive at worst like “Mohammedan” and “Hottentot.” Walsh levels vitriol at the residents of Mexico, accusing them of wishing to enact a Reconquista of Mexico’s former territory with “armies of illegal immigrants wielding sick children as weapons” and saying that “if there is any ‘racism’ in the Americas, look to south of the [US-Mexico] border for its origins” (pp. 185, 191). Elsewhere, he refers to the tribes at Little Big Horn as “savages,” a view reinforced by a later passage worth quoting in full: “the sheer unpredictability of the natives, especially after they had been drinking. It was customary among the tribes, once the drinking had commenced, to finish every last drop. The results could be horrific. Children were played with, then brained. Women went unmolested, or were suddenly taken to wife and made a member of the tribe. Men were generally killed after prolonged torture and scalping.... Amerindian savagery was almost wholly inexplicable” (pp. 73, 226). Walsh’s view of non-white people, like many of his sources and his views on gender and Islam, is drawn from a bygone and un-mourned era; the cited source for the above quote is not a history of the period, nor is it even a primary source account, but rather the 1956 film The Searchers

Even leaving significant objectionable elements aside, Walsh’s arguments might be interesting if they were novel. Aside from the Siege of Szigetvár, none of the book’s case studies will be new to readers even passingly familiar with military history and the canon of “great battles” that peppers bookstore and library shelves, Hollywood, and YouTube’s many history channels. Indeed, Walsh’s reliance on story and myth, as embodied in his frequent citation of them instead of history, indicates the ubiquity of the examples presented in the book. Additionally, his analysis of each rarely delves deeper than the surface; the Wikipedia articles on each of Walsh’s case studies provide more background, detail, and context for readers, not to mention one of the many academic histories available on each. His larger arguments, about masculinity, Islam, race, culture, and the West, have been repeated ad infinitum for decades, dating back at least to the 1960s. Essentially, Walsh has simply grafted the format of Creasy’s work onto the meta-histories of Huntington and Johnson to create a tired narrative that has already passed the lips and pens of countless pundits, YouTubers, Redditors, and authors before him.

Who is Last Stands for? It is manifestly not intended to be an academic history or contribution to historiography. Readers of popular history will find little new in its pages and arguments, particularly if they are even passingly familiar with similar books and YouTube channels. Readers of all backgrounds and interests will find great fault with Walsh’s approach and beliefs, particularly with regard to gender, race, and religion. Those who do not are likely already familiar with Walsh’s arguments, which date, like many of his references, from the middle of the twentieth century, if not earlier. St. Martin’s Press deserves criticism for how such a work could pass through the editing process, much less achieve publication. Walsh’s Last Stands is a work of middling narrative, little novelty, and repugnant views that belongs on shelves only as a cautionary tale.

The views of the author do not reflect any official position of the US Army, the Command and General Staff College, the Department of Defense, or any other government official or agency.

Citation: Jonathan Abel. Review of Walsh, Michael, Last Stands: Why Men Fight When All Is Lost. H-War, H-Net Reviews. January, 2021. URL: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=56033

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.