To Stephen Ambrose, the five best words in the
English language are love, wife, home, work, and friend–the latter the
most important. In his memoir, Comrades, he explores the concept of
male friendship by documenting the friendships of famous brothers, fathers,
sons and pals. His book is celebrates these friendships as he compares them
to his own.
Known for his comprehensive histories of World War II and
biography of Dwight D. Eisenhower, Ambrose has done a masterful job of
recycling research from those books into this short treatise, which draws
from his friendships with his brothers and friends, as well as noted
historical figures in American history.
He begins with a look at the close relationship between he
and his brothers–from their bonding as children to their breakup during
the Vietnam War and their difficult reunion. Ambrose lets his readers know
from the beginning that it was the bond with his brothers that inspired him
to write this book.
According to Ambrose, men bond sharing a goal. The
friendships Ambrose has chosen to celebrate are largely forged in wartime:
soldiers hitting the beaches on D-Day, George Armstrong Custer and his
brother Tom dying together at Little Big Horn, Crazy Horse and his warrior
friend He Dog slaughtering Custers men, Dwight Eisenhower and George Patton
working side by side to destroy the Nazi war machine.
Though he features Dwight Eisenhower in two chapters, it’s
the chapters on George Armstrong Custer and Crazy Horse that are the most
revealing. Both had strong friendships–the former with his admiring
siblings, who died with him at the hands of the Sioux Indians, and the
latter, a chief of the Sioux, with a childhood friend.
But most moving of all is the last chapter on his
friendship with his father, an old-fashioned authority figure and
disciplinarian who criticized Ambrose throughout his childhood and teen
years. It was Ambrose’s interest in history–namely the American Civil
War–that ultimately brought the two of them closer together.
According to Ambrose, friendship is different from all
other relationships. "Unlike acquaintanceship, it’s based on love.
Unlike lovers and married couples, it’s free from jealousy. Unlike
children and parents, it knows neither criticism nor resentment.
Friendship is freely entered into, freely given, freely
exercised–and in the end, is human.