Thirteen Soldiers by John McCain and Mark Salter

War is its own reward for people who kill the enemy (the more, the better) and survive whole. At the same time, war is horrid, but can bring out the best qualities in people, according to former Navy aviator, U.S. Sen. John McCain of Arizona, and Mark Salter, who served on McCain’s staff for many years and has co-written several other books with him.

In their new book, Thirteen Soldiers: A Personal History of Americans at War (Simon & Schuster, 384 pp., $28.00), the authors identify a single soldier, sailor, airman, or Marine from each of America’s thirteen major wars to eulogize for courage under fire. The eleven men and two women, they write, sacrificed for “something greater than self.” In essence, the book offers short biographies told with admiration, but without embellishment.

I first turned to the chapter on Vietnam—my war. It relates the exploits of  F-105 Wild Weasel pilot, prisoner of war, and Medal of Honor recipient Leo Thorsness. His exploits offer classic examples of courage, disregard for personal safety, and suffering.

The chapter follows the book’s basic format: setting the world stage, recalling the principal person’s pre-war life, and then describing that person’s performance of duty.

Overall, the book briefly reviews American military history from the Revolution of 1776 to today’s conflict in Afghanistan. It describes often-ignored engagements, such as the Spanish-American and Philippine Wars.

John McCain during the Vietnam War

The tale of the latter is highly enlightening: intended to depict the actions of Marine officer Littleton Waller “Tony” Tazewell Waller as one of the few compassionate leaders in the war, it portrays other American leaders and soldiers as racist murderers of Filipinos. The chapter offers a strong lesson in the misapplication of power.

In contrast, the World War II chapter focuses on Guy Louis Gabaldon, who wanted to save, rather than kill, his Japanese enemies. A Hispanic youth from East L.A., Gabaldon grew up around Nisei, first generation Japanese Americans, who taught him their language.

During the battle for Saipan, Gabaldon captured more than fifteen hundred Japanese, but also was forced to kill thirty-three who refused to surrender. While the fighting raged at night, he ventured behind enemy lines and talked Japanese soldiers into surrendering. After the island was secure, he convinced Japanese soldiers hidden in caves to become his prisoners rather than commit suicide. He was eighteen years old at the time. A Navy Cross recipient, Gabaldon forever blamed his failure to receive a Medal of Honor on racism.

The book’s other subjects comprise a diverse group. Two women are the most contemporary: Mary Rhoads from the Persian Gulf War, and medic Monica Lin Brown from Afghanistan. Two are black: Charles Black, a seaman and gunner in the War of 1812, and Edward Baker, a Buffalo Soldier cavalryman who received the Medal of Honor for his actions during the 1898 Spanish-American War.

The others range from familiar Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. in the Civil War to little-known Elton “Lucky” Mackin, who fought in every Marine Corps battle in World War I.

—Henry Zeybel