Born Fighting, by James Webb

DR. STOCKMANN: The minority is always in the right.
–Ibsen, An Enemy of the People

This book is a tribute to cussedness. The Scots-Irish, in Webb’s telling, are the hardest-working, hardest-drinking, hardest-fighting, who don’t have any great ambitions, are overlooked, and resent it all. At least, he resents it all.

This is a tribute to low art. Country music is the creation of the Scots-Irish and quoted copiously. Webb has no time for the Scottish Enlightenment, or even Robert Burns, and never takes the time to tell why they don’t fit into his story. Clearly, they don’t, because they’re not the highlanders; but he could have spent some time on Scots vs. Scots-Irish. Who is his audience in this book? The Scots-Irish, as he describes them, would probably not have the patience or the time to read a 300-page half-history/half-memoir.

Relying on a few history texts, from which he liberally quotes, Webb describes how the Scots developed from ancient Celtic tribes in Britain. Some of them bounced back and forth between Scotland and Ulster before heading west in the eighteenth century as the Scots-Irish. They adopted Appalachia as a home-away-from-highlands, but even then, some kept moving, all the way to California.

Webb honors Andrew Jackson as the first Scots-Irish President. In an effort to show how the glass is half-full, Webb dismisses the Indian relocations in half a sentence and moves on to other things. Let someone else show the other hand. There is little room for women in the book, except for a few anecdotes about the women in his family with biceps like a man.

By the end of book, after telling of World War II, history disappears and we move into the territory of autobiography or memoir. No one can dispute Webb’s experiences as a Marine in Vietnam, but his later life has been a series of desk jobs–Congressional staffer, Navy Secretary, novelist. He tries to give it all meaning by connecting to his bloody roots. Whether the reader finds him sympathetic is another story.

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