I'm a tragically slow reader, so I choose my books carefully. Lately, I've been reading the memoirs of U.S. Grant, albeit at a tortoise pace that makes my typical slow motion look like an Evelyn Wood demo. I've kept the book bedside for a couple years now, and still Appomattox is nowhere in sight. I move through chapters like heavy artillery through mud.
Yet the pace suits me — and the material. The war was a long, hard slog. And Grant's reflections have such resonance that I keep putting the book down to listen to the echoes. The fight against Mexico in 1846, Grant laments, was a "political" war waged on a false premise. Has a contemporary ring, doesn't it? The general who presided over the greatest destruction of American life in history — more than 600,000 soldiers on both sides died — also surprises with compassion. Contemptuous of slavery and committed to crushing the rebellion, Grant nonetheless has an ample soft spot for the enemy, taking risks to protect his foes' dignity. When Grant is ordered to handle rebels "without gloves" — including evicting Southern civilians from their homes and arresting them — he simply ignores the command. In fact, he fails to make a single arrest, having "deemed it better that a few guilty men should escape than that a great many innocent ones should suffer." It’s hard to resist projecting this thoughtful, anguished titan — a civil libertarian up to his epaulets in carnage — into the era of Guantánamo and Abu Ghraib. Grant didn't shrink from violence, but he didn't surrender principle, either. He did his duty, and he won. I peeked at the ending.