When we read about the exploits of Navy Seals, Green Berets and other elite military groups, we should understand that all these groups had their progenitor in a man named Robert Rogers. His life story forms the basis of "War on the Run," by American Heritage Editor John Ross (Bantam Books, 2009).
Rogers' father emigrated to the young American colonies from Ireland during the late 1720s. There he faced a hardscrabble existence in New Hampshire. His accidental death created significant hardship for the family, difficulty only compounded by destruction of the family home during an Indian raid.
Unlike many of his peers, Rogers early on showed himself to be an avid learner of Indian customs and skills. This sowed the seeds of self-sufficiency and remarkable ability for improvisation that stayed with him throughout his life.
During the French and Indian Wars, Rogers volunteered to assemble and train a group of rangers. Given the opportunity, he led successful raids that both earned respect from many (not all!) British military leaders and struck fear in enemy minds.
Here was an individual who developed entirely new concepts of fighting, a man who became thoroughly comfortable in a wilderness that so many others found threatening. Intrepid would not be a strong enough adjective to describe him.
In many ways, Rogers changed the rules of warfare. No longer could foes assume that winter months would be largely noncombative. Rogers' troops steeled themselves for travel and attack in the most bitterly cold weather. Each ranger learned to make and use snowshoes, and to wear moccasins tanned with special processes. An insistence on layering and special attention to foot care presaged modern concepts.
There are plenty of unsettling and grisly passages in the book. Men trained for hand-to-hand combat in that era faced dire consequences in defeat. What would seem heroic to one side would be considered terrorism by opponents. A modern reader recoils from the realization that destruction of enemy food supplies would go down in Rogers' journals as a success.
The contributions of Rogers and his rangers played important roles in British success during the French and Indian Wars. The "Rules of Ranging" that Rogers set down are still read in military circles today. Had personal financial issues and political infighting not intervened, he might well have also had an impact during the American Revolution.
Although much of Rogers' activity took place around Lake George, Lake Champlain, and the St. Lawrence valley, in time he made forays as far south as the Carolinas, and west to present-day Michigan. He had an early grasp of the potential for settling more of North America. His interest in finding a northwest passage to the Pacific put him in good company, even though his superiors never had him exploit that urge.
Rogers captured the essence of his work in journals he eventually published. Quoting John Ross, the frontiersman had "a vibrant, immediate first person narrative style highly unusual for his day." He even managed to complete a play, in which he paid tribute to the Indian leader Pontiac.
Although courage, resilience and resourcefulness were critical components of Rogers' leadership strategy, perhaps his most important strength was his ability to meld soldiers into cohesive and mutually supportive groups able to exceed what they thought were their limits. Rogers knew how to generate loyalty well before all the corporate management and military gurus who give motivational speeches on the topic today. Small-unit woods fighting, for Rogers, "involved a whole corpus of new skills in woodcraft and survival, micro-operational capacities, and an esprit de corps that enabled men to transcend their own perceived physical and emotional capacities."
Later in life, Rogers battled debt, lawsuits and several terms in jail. He fell afoul of some military hierarchy, most notably in conflict with George Washington. This may explain why his efforts haven't been better remembered over the years.
"War on the Run" is dense with fact. Yet Rogers' exploits are exciting enough that the story stays compelling. This book gives insight into a self-taught early American with enough determination and ability as a motivator to become what Ross calls "North America's first celebrity." As you read about his exploits, you'll wonder why there's never been a movie made of his life.
This review reflects the individual view of the reviewer, not the views of the Adirondack Center for Writing or the Enterprise.