General in Command: The Life of Major General John B. Anderson
by Michael M. Van Ness

"While he had been abroad, he dreamed of home and now at home, he held firmly to the relationships formed abroad."

Biographies, by nature, are a peek into an individual’s lifespan and contributions to society. In this book, however, Van Ness successfully manages to not only give a glimpse of Major General Anderson’s life but also delivers insight from a unique vantage point into many of the most pivotal moments in American history. At the same time, this work is genuinely made special and personal by the continuous efforts of the author, Anderson’s grandson, to both learn and chronicle his grandfather’s gargantuan impact. In his quest to fully unearth the life of a remarkable general, Van Ness combines his family knowledge with relentless research, leaving no stones unturned in his mission to shed light on one of the principal figures of the 20th century.

Van Ness’s piece is perhaps best described as substantive without being dense. The writing is straightforward and paints a portrait of a man who is unfazed by his humble beginnings. While much of the content explores the depths of war, the text touches on life experiences that have created a general of the ultimate character. Beginning with his departure to West Point in 1910 and the end of his Parkersburg, Iowa, life, Anderson embraces the military as his family. From the Beast Barracks and plebedom—rite of passage experiences—to divorce stemming from the emotional trauma on newlywed spouses, Van Ness takes readers into the real world of the military, where it is not all guts and glory.

Van Ness’s structuring of the biography is extremely effective. However, the general’s letters steal the show. The ability to peer into a general’s mind, unhindered, as history’s most notorious events unfold is downright chilling. Whereas the history book delivers content with the purpose to inform, Anderson’s letters, directed most often to his wife, his daughter Tudy—the mother of the author—and at times his older brother, Nels, are unfiltered in their reflections and musings. To the extent that the general is permitted, he shares his experiences with his family. In the process, the audience is able to travel inside the mind of a soldier amid the complete chaos and war, surrounded by iconic names such as Eisenhower and Pershing. In particular, Anderson’s letter describing the “C” Battery’s success in firing the first shot into the Hun lines is compelling and a perspective that is simply not be available in history textbooks. At the same time, the letters describe pain upon losing members of his battalion. Anderson writes, “Cemetery after cemetery, each one of which simply a sea of crosses, was passed during the afternoon.”

Even in the letters, a strong theme exists: weather as a way to cope with reality. In fact, many of the letters open up with a description of the weather as rainy, snowy, clear, and most often beautiful. The irony in the beautiful weather in the embrace of war and terror is not lost. The letters juxtapose reflections on momentum-changing battles like the Battle of Belleau Wood, the Battle of the Bulge, and the Battle of Guadalcanal with expeditions featuring twenty-one-foot pythons, travels to small towns in Belgium and France, and ice skating in Washington, which he likened to “Nero fiddling while Rome burned.” The general’s emotions are laid out clearly in each letter, whether it is the bittersweet anguish upon leaving war and his brotherhood to train soldiers at the Field Artillery School at Fort Sill, or assuming the role of technical advisor to the American delegation of the 1929 Geneva Convention of the Treatment of War Prisoners.

The authenticity of the letters is accentuated by the maps and visuals, wartime mementos that tell a story of Anderson’s involvement in one iconic moment after another. The one that speaks most prominently is the image of the general transporting Winston Churchill across the Rhine River in a boat. More than anything else, every element of Van Ness’s biography serves to not only shine a light on Anderson’s merits, but also to depict him as humble, down-to-earth, and relatable, someone who would rather seek the companionship of his brotherhood rather than stand shoulder to shoulder with the “big shots.” At its core, this text is a fitting eulogy for a general whose presence and accomplishments contributed to shifting the course of American history.

A 2020 Eric Hoffer Book Award E-Book Nonfiction Honorable Mention

RECOMMENDED by the US Review

Return to USR Home