I recently had the opportunity to interview novelist and historian H. W. Crocker III, who has a new book out, “Armstrong,” a comic novel praised by Winston Groom (“Forrest Gump”), Stephen Coonts (“Flight of the Intruder”), Rob Long (“Cheers”), and many others, which imagines that George Armstrong Custer secretly survived his last stand to become an incognito marshal in the Old West.
Crocker is a novelist who is also a popular historian of the Catholic Church (“Triumph”), a military historian who has written several books on the Civil War – including “The Politically Incorrect Guide to the Civil War” – and a former political speechwriter. He might be one of the few souls left, in the current climate of hostility to free speech, who will say exactly what he thinks. He also was the editor for my own book, “Bannon: Always the Rebel.”
I recently asked him about his new book, about the crisis facing the Catholic Church, and about the battle over Confederate monuments. I thought you might be interested in seeing some of his provocative and insightful comments.
Why did you choose General Custer as the protagonist for your new novel?
Because he’s fun. He’s also surprisingly politically incorrect. He’s grossly misrepresented – largely by the Left – as an idiotic, arrogant Indian-killer. He was nothing of the sort. He was the boy general of the Union Army, a brigadier general at twenty-three. He sympathized with the Indians—and with the Confederates—even as he fought them. He was tremendously brave. His story is a great American story—part Horatio Alger, part Errol Flynn, and it’s no surprise that he was a favorite of Ronald Reagan’s, who played him in a film.
The book is a colorful comedy that I thought might work even better as a film, one that would be a dream project for a variety of character actors. Were there larger points you wanted to make, or is this mostly for fun?
The book can be read—and I’m happy for it to be read—as pure entertainment, a funny, action-packed adventure: a dangerous book for dads and older sons, and for wives and daughters too. I don’t want to get in the way of the action and the comedy, but, yes, the book will repay a closer reading; it has some subtler jokes, for one thing; and if nothing else, it reaffirms natural law and traditional American patriotism.
You mention natural law, which is something people often associate with the Catholic Church. How great is the crisis faced today by the Catholic Church as a result of the most recent abuse allegations and the alleged complicity of the church hierarchy in covering them up?
If Pope John Paul II or Pope Benedict XVI made errors on this issue, it was because they could hardly believe what was reported to them. The difference today is that it appears Pope Francis might be complicit.
What must Francis do now, and what do you expect to come out of the meeting of bishops that he has called for February? And what should result from it?
Conservative Catholics hope to ride this pontificate out. He should resign, but he won’t. He’s a political pope, and a politician needs an office.
How does this rank with past challenges for the Church?
Well, the pope was once held captive by Napoleon. In the tenth century, popes had a roughly one in three chance of being murdered in office. This current scandal is a backwash of the sexual revolution of the 1960s and 1970s—that’s why most of these crimes are in the past, most of the offenders are dead, and the complicit prelates are elderly.
Why does the church not seem to be learning the lessons of similar scandals that occurred relatively recently?
Too many bishops have failed to defend the faith—and the faithful—and instead practiced clericalism of the worst kind. But there has been some reform. The percentage of priests involved in these heinous crimes was always small and it’s tiny now.
Talk about the vow of celibacy and whether the Church should consider ending it.
That’s a matter of Church discipline rather than dogma, so it could be changed, but it’s a liberal heresy to assume that celibacy creates sex offenders; and married clergy aren’t immune from sin.
Let’s move on to another topic. In the current climate, there is virtually nothing nice anyone is allowed to say about any person who took part in the Confederate cause or its army. How do you answer those who say everyone who fought for the South must, ipso facto, be condemned?
Lincoln didn’t condemn them. Teddy Roosevelt didn’t condemn them—he praised them as American heroes. So did FDR. President Eisenhower kept Robert E. Lee’s portrait on his desk in the White House. General George Marshall venerated Lee, taking him as a role model. The current Nazification of the Confederacy is very new and very evil. Americans used to understand the Civil War as our own domestic Iliad, a tragedy with heroes on both sides. The Left is waging war on America’s past because if our past was a litany of evil, then obviously America must be remade. I find it astonishing how many conservatives have signed up for this historical Bolshevism.
What should be done with Civil War monuments? What is your view of their place in society and of, literally, their place?
They should stay where they are. Donald Trump was right: removing these statues is a crime against American history and against the beauty of our cities, towns, and parks. If the Left is so keen on diversity and tolerance, how about accepting Confederate monuments? When I came to Virginia as a Californian, I loved that I could drive down Jeff Davis Highway, that I could visit the Stonewall Jackson “Shrine,” because I relished, and I still do, regional differences in this country. They’re important, they’re to be enjoyed, and they’re reminders of our history. If I can bring this conversation full circle, this is one of the serious underlying themes of Armstrong. The Left’s agitational propaganda that America’s story is a sorry tale of evil, racism, slavery, and genocide, from which the Left and socialism must deliver us, is simply wrong. America’s story is heroic; it’s, in part, about how the West was won—though I suppose we can’t say that anymore. There is a far more honest history, far more understanding, in a novel like Gone with the Wind or even in Armstrong, than there is in the iconoclastic vandalism going on today—and iconoclasm and Vandals take us back to Catholic history, but that’s another story.
But why shouldn’t African Americans be offended by those statues? Isn’t that a case for taking them down or removing them?
I’ll tell you a true story. I was visiting a Civil War battlefield museum and I saw two young black kids playfully tussling over who got to wear the grey uniform in a costume box. Both wanted it, “Because we’re from the South.” There are no monuments in the South to slavery. The monuments to Confederate soldiers and generals are monuments to people who fought to defend their homes, who fought, in their minds, with the same motivating spirit as the rebels of 1776. They wanted a country of their own, they wanted to go their own way, and only a wealthy few of them owned slaves. Robert E. Lee called slavery a moral and political evil before the war, and in his correspondence with Lord Acton shortly after the war, he said that no one in the South mourned the abolition of slavery or yearned for its return. What Southerners did question was how this abolition was achieved—by military invasion, and by violating the constitutional idea that the United States was a union of freely adhering states, not a union held together by force, by swords and bayonets. A Protestant need not be offended by a statue of Joan of Arc in New Orleans, a conscientious objector need not be offended by the Korean War Memorial in Washington, DC., a black person need not be offended by the slave quarters at George Washington’s estate at Mount Vernon, and a Sioux need be offended by the statue of George Armstrong Custer in Monroe, Michigan. Somehow I managed, as an undergraduate at UCSD, to refrain from leading an imitation Bay of Pigs invasion with Cuban-American students against the Che Café located on campus. I think we could do with a lot less offense-taking and a lot more magnanimity and understanding in this country. And I hope in its own small, comic way Armstrong can achieve something of that.