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Book Review- "Washington- a life"

Elise Cooper for BLACKFIVE.

Ron Chernow’s book, Washington: A life is a thorough view of George Washington from birth until death. Chernow covers a wide range of issues that deal with the First President’s personal life, personality traits, military career, and political career. The reader gains an excellent understanding as to who Washington was and what led him to make certain decisions. Since the book was over 800 pages and Chernow was so widespread with this biography he decided to include such trivial matters as Washington sitting for portraits or the many examples of Washington’s wandering eye.

The most compelling part of the book is when Chernow discusses Washington’s military career. It is eerie how some of Washington’s military actions can be traced to the current wars America is fighting. Take for example his exploits during the French-Indian War. After an Indian guide turned out to be disloyal, instead of executing him as Washington’s companion requested, Washington chose to release him after dark. Because of the fear that the Indian might return with others, Washington and his friend traveled all night to get away from the possible threat. This sounds a lot like what Navy Seal Marcus Luttrell experienced and described in his book, Lone Survivor. After three goat herders came upon the Seal team who were on a reconnaissance mission, they were detained but ultimately released by the Seals. The released herders likely betrayed the team to local Taliban.

Chernow also powerfully relays Washington’s desire to bring the traitor Benedict Arnold to justice as if he were writing a political thriller. He writes it in a suspenseful, fascinating manner how Washington supported a scheme to abduct Arnold from New York City where he had taken refuge. The plan was to kidnap Arnold while he walked in his garden and bring him back to the colonist’s camp. Chernow told that Washington wanted to set an example with Arnold but unfortunately the scheme was foiled.

Throughout the book it is pointed out that General Washington believed and supported the idea of “citizen soldier.” In the biography Washington was quoted after Congress granted the General extraordinary powers, that he was well aware that ‘the sword was the last resort for the preservation of our liberties, so it ought to be the first thing laid aside when those liberties are firmly established…When we assumed the soldier, we did not lay aside the citizen.’ Chernow commented to blackfive “Washington had clarity of vision.”

Washington also had the vision to use espionage tactics, including double agents and misinformation. According to Chernow “Washington showed real artistry as a spymaster, and had the foresight to maintain secrecy by committing nothing to paper. He personally supervised the spy network and was the only person to know who were the people involved and the plan.”

For those military buffs this book goes into great detail on the battles of the Revolutionary War and the tactics Washington used. For example during the Delaware Crossing, and the Battle of Long Island the book describes the General as combining speed and flexibility to achieve successful military operations.

There are also tidbits of interesting information that Chernow disseminates throughout the book. He talks about how and why the Purple Heart was established as well as why the Vice President is relegated to a figurehead.

Although this review only concentrated on Washington’s military career the book provides a comprehensive look into Washington’s life. The biography is divided into different parts: Washington’s early life, his military career, the Presidency, and life after being a public servant. It is an insightful and compelling view of America’s First President and as Chernow states “the historic figure he becomes over a period of many years.”