The Spanish Civil War served as an ideological and physical battleground for visionary Americans wishing to combat the spread of fascism. Harry Fisher was one such idealist who became a solider in the famed Abraham Lincoln Brigade, the American contingent of international volunteers dedicated to defeating Franco's forces.
Fisher was one of the earliest American volunteers and one of the few to participate in all the major battles. Under a barrage of shells, bombs, and bullets for eighteen months, he lost his illusions about war's efficacy in solving political issues. To this day a despondence often overwhelms him when he recalls a family photograph he found jutting from the pocket of a slain fascist soldier. His involvement taught him that up close, the dead, whether fascist soldiers or his own fallen comrades, looked alike.
This is a war story, simply told. Yet it is also a complex story about a young man testing his ideology in the harsh realities of battle.
Harry Fisher, a young labor organizer during the depression years, was one of some 3,000 Americans to join the cause of the loyalist government when civil war broke out in Spain in 1936. Assigned to the Lincoln Battalion, which would later become the Abraham Lincoln Brigade (and, the author notes, the first racially integrated unit in American military history), Fisher fought in several key engagements against the fascists, including the bloody battle of Jarama. He emerged from the war scarred but alive, unlike most of the young Americans who populate the pages of his memoir, nearly all of them killed in action for a cause they knew was right--but also doomed to failure. Anger, Fisher writes, motivated him to assemble his memoirs--anger that, as he puts it, "countless U.S. administrations have treated us like pariahs, President Reagan even commenting once that the Lincolns fought on the wrong side in the Spanish Civil War!" Yet what emerges from his pages is not so much anger as a gentle, and often good-humored, homage to the young men who fought at his side--and even some kind tributes to his former enemies, who, he writes, "were just kids who happened to live in territory controlled by the fascists, kids who would surely have preferred soccer games to war." A highlight comes at the end of the narrative, when Fisher recounts a trip to Spain in 1996 to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the Lincoln Brigades' founding. His book is a solid contribution to histories of the period, worthy of a place alongside Ernest Hemingway's For Whom the Bell Tolls. --Gregory McNamee