North Country war zone

ONCHIOTA – David Fitz-Enz, a retired Army colonel and active military historian, doesn’t see the same things most of us do when he drives to Plattsburgh, or Ogdensburg, or Sacketts Harbor.

We tend to see the northern New York landscape only in its present state, maybe overlaid with memories of how it was earlier in our lifetimes. Fitz-Enz, who lives in Onchiota with his wife of 50-plus years, Carol, sees it as it was two centuries ago – as a battleground.

His latest book goes by a conspicuous title: “Hacks, Sycophants, Adventurers, & Heroes: Madison’s Commanders in the War of 1812.” Published at the end of 2012 by Taylor Trade, it’s his fourth book about that war, joining “The Final Invasion” (2001, about the Battle of Plattsburgh), “Old Ironsides: Eagle of the Sea” (2004, about the U.S.S. Constitution) and “Redcoats’ Revenge” (2008, an alternate history positing what might have happened if the invading British had won at Plattsburgh). He also wrote and co-produced a PBS documentary of “The Final Invasion,” the hard-bound version of which won him the Army Historical Foundation’s Distinguished Book Prize and the Knights Templar’s Military Order of St. Louis.

Before all that, he had written about his own 30 years of military experience: in Vietnam as a combat photographer, paratrooper and aviator, and then as a career officer serving top staffs in Europe, Asia and the U.S. Among many other duties, he helped run the Moscow hotline for presidents Carter, Reagan and Bush. He called that first book “Why a Soldier” (2000, Random House).

He learned and taught a great deal of military history during that career, and now that it’s become his full-time occupation, he dabbles in fictional versions of it, too. The book he’s working on now is a spy thriller.

At each year’s anniversary of the Battle of Plattsburgh, including next year’s bicentennial, you can find Fitz-Enz in Beekmantown, near the current school, showing visitors where marches and skirmishes took place.

What was the Battle of Plattsburgh? In 1814, after Napoleon abdicated and several U.S. attempts to invade Canada failed, the British decided to focus on hitting the Americans hard on their own turf. They invaded at Washington, Plattsburgh and New Orleans, winning only the first. Here in the north, they sent 15,000 troops on land and on Lake Champlain from Quebec south toward New York City, and the only force standing in their way was a remnant of 1,500 men the U.S. had left at Plattsburgh. Yet that ragged band, led by Alexander Macomb on land and Thomas Macdonough on the lake, made good use of what they had – including knowledge of the terrain and waterfront – and somehow managed to send the redcoats back to Canada.

The Enterprise interviewed Fitz-Enz for an hour on April 30 in his living room, surrounded by neatly arranged medals, books and other collectibles. Classical music played gently in the background as he answered questions and also veered off into many vivid side stories: the Germans who dangled below the zeppelins that bombed England in World War I, American mistakes that led to the Korean War, storytelling formulas, how movies and television get war wrong, working under a particularly demanding boss (the supreme allied commander of Europe), how high-altitude flying kills woodworms in old furniture, and the importance of terrain in combat – illustrated with tales of the battles of Waterloo and Plattsburgh and a firefight he faced in a banana grove in Vietnam. As a writer, he said his biggest challenge is maintaining focus amid so many fascinating diversions in the course of his research.

The following interview has been edited for length.

ADE: When you drive to Plattsburgh – most people don’t think about these things – do you think about things like, “This is a battleground”?

DF: Oh, absolutely. Absolutely.

ADE: Tell me what you think about when you’re driving up there.

DF: You think of the little town of Jay, alright? Jay has got a common, a little square in the middle of town. Well, you drive through Jay, once upon a time, someone stood in that square who was the captain of the militia. And the reason he was captain of the militia was because he was a politician or he knew a politician, and he was of that party.

So he went to a jeweler somewhere and got himself a sword. That’s where the swords came from; the jewelers made ’em, and their uniform and insignia and all that, too. … And so this guy stands in the square, he gets himself a drummer and outfits himself in kind of a uniform, and he forms the Jay Militia.

And the militia is a good deal because before the war, it meant that you could appear to be a great citizen, the government gave you a rifle … you got some kind of a uniform or other … and you got to parade on Sunday after church. You got to be there all day Saturday to train as well, and then Saturday night, you drank. There was a drinking party. So you got to be away from your wife for the weekend. You spent the whole weekend once a month with these buddies of yours, shooting government rifles, shooting government ammunition, marching around, being admired by the ladies, and if you were married you didn’t have to go home to the wife and kids. It’s not all a bad deal, you know?

Now, we found in Jay a few years ago that the people there in an old house on the corner, they found the roster. This was about 10 years ago. And the roster showed the names of all the people that were in the militia. Many people’s families still live there who were on that roster. And next to it, (someone) wrote, “deserted,” “deserted,” “deserted,” “wounded,” and so forth.

ADE: In the Battle of Plattsburgh, from what I remember from your book, the militia didn’t represent themselves all that well.

DF: No, they ran. Seven hundred of ’em ran. Actually, there were 2,500; only 700 showed up. These were the patriots who showed up. The others stayed in their houses and traded with the British and got paid in gold.

ADE: What do you see as the likelihood that there could be war on American soil again, when you think about these things in historical context?

DF: Oh, I think about it very much so, and in fact, in my training, at Command and General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, we did a two-week exercise on someone invading the United States, and we fought a huge battle in Kansas. This is not beyond possibility. There are plans to defend this country that are updated often, and the reason there are plans – you know, people don’t really think that it’s possible, but you need people to write plans. Because we’ve been in a war for so long now in Iraq and Afghanistan, the present problem in the Army today is we don’t have the planners; we have the fighters, because that’s what, the last 10 years, we’ve been doing. … So the challenge of the Army today is to go back to the drawing boards and teach people how to plan for things like if America was ever invaded again, or any scenario you want to come up with.

ADE: It seems really appropriate with the War of 1812, especially after reading your book, to focus on the commanders since they were mostly on their own in leading the war effort. There wasn’t much central strategizing out of Washington on this one. Especially to the reader who didn’t know much else about the war, including myself, it would seem you were very thorough about it. But in the preface to the book, you wrote about how much you had to condense and cherry-pick the research you did to boil down each historic person to their essentials, hoping that readers would go off on their own and explore these situations and people more. In rereading the preface after reading the book, it occurred to me that maybe you could have written a book on each one of these commanders, or perhaps a book on the soldiers themselves in this war, or perhaps a book on (President) Madison and the Washington aspect of this.

DF: I could’ve written a book on the finance. There’s a huge story on finance.

ADE: But in the preface, you were kind of worried that people wouldn’t read them. So tell me about how you put the pieces together.

DF: I started out with the fact that all the histories I have read are linear, and they’re really boring. I think of my poor wife. “Oh let’s go look at this trench,” where she wants to go to Herrod’s and go shopping. “Let’s go look at these weapons over here in this guards museum.” So she’s my reader; she’s also my editor. So I try to think of them all the time, and what they need is, they’ve got to turn the page.

(“Hacks, Sycophants, Adventurers, & Heroes” begins with Isaac Hull who, as captain of the U.S.S. Constitution, unexpectedly defeated the British frigate Guerriere in 1812. From there it jumps to Isaac’s uncle William Hull, the politically connected governor of the Michigan territory whose pathetic invasion of Canada from Detroit was easily beaten back.)

DF: So I thought I could lead with a hero, ’cause everybody likes heroes. And it’s a terrific hero story, especially with these guys rowing the ship across in front of Massachusetts, trying just to stay ahead of the British fleet because their sails were becalmed for two-and-a-half days. Can you imagine? And then they have this great victory afterward, and it just destroys England because the people couldn’t believe that these Yankees could take on a British frigate and win.

And then I had the opposite. I knew in my own mind I had the opposite, and I really built Isaac up and got the reader on a high – “I want to read more of this” – and then I dump William Hull on ’em. And they’re waiting for William Hull to succeed, you know? I want ’em to (think), “Hey, go get ’em William!” William is a disaster, and why is he a disaster? Because the president of the United States said a regular army is a mischief, and he didn’t have one. And yet he goes and declares war on the greatest war machine in the world. And so all of a sudden in the reader’s mind, I’m hoping to get them to say, “What the hell did we do getting ourselves into this? Why are we here?”

It’s a shame that the reader knows ahead of time that America won the War of 1812, or at least existed through the war. It would be much better if they didn’t know that before they started the book because I could have ’em up and down and up and down.

ADE: From the title of the book forward, you’re not very afraid to pass judgment on these commanders as being good or bad or competent or incompetent. And you still fill them out with enough information for readers to make their own nuanced opinions about them. At what point in your process of planning this book and narrowing your focus did you decide to kind of go all in on saying, “OK, here are the heroes, and here are the idiots, and I’m just going to call them that way”?

DF: They all did it themselves. I was just an observer. But I thought that it was important that I tell their story from birth because you don’t know why a guy does something when he’s 40 unless you understand where he comes from. People act in their own behalf, and they’re made that way by their experience.

ADE: What’s your take when you think about current or more recent military involvement with the U.S.?

DF: My forte is geopolitical. I don’t really care about Republicans, Democrats; the regular Army doesn’t. We have no connection with any political party. … And so I understand that a nation always acts in its own interests.

I look at Syria, and I said from the very beginning that we would never get involved with Syria, and the reason we don’t get involved with Syria and the reason the president is trying to stay out of it now, and so is most of Congress – just a few hotheads, you know – the reason is we have no national interest in Syria. They don’t have anything we want.

ADE: What about Afghanistan?

DF: Afghanistan is a direct result of the attack on 9/11. The men we consider the people who did that were from Afghanistan, that Taliban government that had taken over the country a few years earlier, after the Russians left.

ADE: I remember, for years ahead of that, you’d hear appeals: “The Taliban is treating people terribly. The world community and the West needs to do something about this.” Nothing, nothing, nothing – no national interest. They’re persecuting their people – no national interest. All of a sudden, 9/11, they’re sheltering guys who attacked the U.S., then there’s a national interest.

DF: And too, there was a history there. You can never forget history. The history was that the British tried to corral Afghanistan twice: 1848, 1885 or ’89. Two different British military expeditions went into Afghanistan. What a mess. The second one, they didn’t do too badly in that the British did what they usually do: They fought it to a standstill, they saw there was no future in it, they declared victory and left.

So national interests – make sure they’re clearly defined and that everybody else knows them, is the rule.