by Howard Fast
A new forward (for the Modern Library edition)
There are many books still read widely, but written generations ago, the original purpose of which has been lost; such books, today, are read for entertainment—by some for "culture"—and very often we discover that their richness and vitality are none the less for the years. Yet it is interesting to note, I think, that most of those books were written with a purpose in mind—some would call it propaganda—to correct an evil, to attack a tyrant, or to rally men of good will behind a cause.
The purpose served, society and history moved on; the books remain. And for all that the social structure Balzac exposed so mercilessly is dead and gone, his books live, nor is their fine vigor much abated.
Now, since the Modern Library has done me the honor of including this book in their collection, giving it a good deal more permanence than most books have these days, I would like to say something about the time in which it was written, and how I came to write it.
For many years I had in mind that I would like to do a book in which George Washington was the central character, but neither the form nor the story of the book became apparent until December of 1941. If you remember, after the attack on Pearl Harbor, things were very black, not only for us, but for all of the civilized world; high, wide and ugly, the fascist walked across the stage, and for the moment, it seemed to many that all of the earth would be his. The future was not apparent to us then, and the only perspective for democracy was blood, sweat and tears.
To write a book about the new war we were plunged into was impossible then, and any sort of polemic in ideals would have been superficial and meaningless. For my part, I felt that the most I could do would be to take from the past, not a parallel—there are no real parallels in history— but an incident in which certain elements made for both comparison and faith; an incident in which Americans fought against great odds, not to triumph; but to a point where they had gathered such strength of purpose that victory must eventually be theirs. And in that incident, there had to be a qualitative change, both in the rank and file and in the leadership.
Out of that conception came both the story told here and the portrait of George Washington. As far as possible, I tampered with neither the facts nor the direction. What these men of long ago had done was a better sermon than any I could invent, and no creatures of my mind could be more alive than these frightened, splendid soldiers.