On the Canary Islands, across the Straits of Gibraltar in North Africa, and scattered throughout the Iberian Peninsula, generals plotted a coup. The election of February 1936, a popular vote to continue the five-year-old Spanish Republic after decades of rump monarchy and right-wing military dictatorship, did not sit well with the generals, so they conspired a return to things as they had ever been in Spain: rule at the behest of the latifundistas, the murderous tin-pot military officers, and the Catholic Church’s well-upholstered hierarchy — a criminal lot who hoarded the country’s natural wealth to themselves.
The civil war that ensued, like most civil wars, was nasty. Thanks to its (admittedly simplified: fascism/democracy), black-and-white protagonists, it has taken on a near-mythic, romantic air, not in little part from the fine fiction and nonfiction it has spawned. With few exceptions — episodes of heroic love, the ringing calls of La Pasionaria — the war was anything but romantic. It was a bloodbath married to starvation and the destruction of ancient cities.
In Hell and Good Company, Richard Rhodes writes that he was drawn “to the human stories that had not yet been told or had been told only incompletely. I was drawn as well to the technical developments of the war”; the medical advances, for instance, though also the calculated opportunity for Italy and Germany to use a small war as a laboratory for conducting a large war, the better to learn how to sow terror in the civilian population (bombing and setting firestorms in plazas, hospitals, train stations, working-class districts), crush morale, lay siege, and kill the enemy with new efficiency. This Rhodes does well, measuring both the people and the geopolitical angles, but there is something else at work that drives this book forward: thunderclaps of anger. Rhodes doesn’t work up a lather, he breaks from the gate in one, barely contained and leaking great bursts of outrage like steam escaping from a locomotive. He takes this story personally, and why not? There are ample reasons — abominations following on the heels of travesties — to stoke the fire.
Pride of place for Rhodes’s bitterness goes to the florid cutthroat Francisco Franco — the duce, the führer, the caudillo de España. Talk about personal: “Short on imagination, he was physically short as well: five feet four, with small, girlish hands, a high-pitched voice, and a paunch he had acquired early in adulthood,” the kind of man, when Germany and Italy recognized the Franco government in 1936, given to crowing, “This moment marks the peak of the life of the world.”
Franco possessed an elementary barbarity (the less said about his Moroccan mercenaries and Spanish foreign legionnaires the better, so that we may sleep well at all at night). “I will destroy Madrid rather than leave it to the Marxists.” He did just so, along with many other towns, men, women, and children, courtesy of bombers supplied by his friends Adolph Hitler and Benito Mussolini, and fueled by Texaco, Standard Oil of New Jersey, and Atlantic Refining — the kind of shameless bedfellowing that ignites Rhodes’s fury. This, however, is not news, and to avoid giving himself an aneurysm — though this will be a constant worry to readers throughout the book — Rhodes turns his attention to the men and women who tended to the Republican casualties. This is the meat of the story, more so than the international battalions, the anarchists, the anarcho-syndicalists, the socialists, the communists, the Trotskyists, the Stalinists — all with their intrigues and polarizations — who have received their fair share of limelight in other books; though Rhodes will touch down upon them with crystalline portraits, he is more engrossed by the doctors and nurses at the front.
These characters are not only wonderful personalities, but they are skillfully drawn by Rhodes — not saints, foible-ridden, graceful under fire (though also sometimes panicky under fire), ingenious, good, and human. There is the burly British polymath J.B.S. Haldane, who breathed doses of chlorine gas to perfect a gas mask (“None of us was much the worse for the gas . . . some had to go to bed for a few days”); Norman Bethune, “a forty-six-year-old firebrand Canadian thoracic surgeon and ardent communist,” who would pioneer blood typing, storage, and transfusions and use a Ford woodie as an ambulance since there was no surf in sight; the field hospitals of the intrepid and naive American Edward Barsky (“In my innocence, I had supposed that the red cross would be respected,” before he was told to “cover your wagon with mud, comrade”); Catalan surgeon Josep Trueta’s expert handling of compound fractures; and the unforgettable Patience Darton, a twenty-five-year-old English nurse who had to fight the men on her side to simply exercise her training, or even take a bath in an anarchist village, where “we used to go and bathe in the river in perfectly respectable bathing dresses . . . they didn’t like this . . . they said we frightened the mules.”
Rhodes saves room for the lesser but no less candent lights in the world of journalism: Robert Merriman, Claude Cockburn, Ilya Ehrenburg, George Steer, Noel Monks, and Louis Delaprée, who put purpose, clarity, and muscle in their reportage. Picasso’s creation of Guernica, and the capturing of its metamorphosis in photographs by Dora Maar, never grows old, but placing it within its surrounding story, a town “bombed and bombed and bombed,” makes something indescribable shake with life. Anyone who has ever wondered what motivates the Basque separatists Euskadi Ta Askatasuna need only read these pages.
Then there are the particulars, which Rhodes handles like a chef adding the right pinch here and there: dead horses and shattered trees, a burning church, a street hawker appearing with a cartload of oranges for a crowd of famished refugees. A barricade made not from cobblestones but books of “Indian metaphysics and early nineteenth century German philosophy; they were quite bullet-proof,” wrote the Englishman John Sommerfield. Newspaperman Herbert Matthews remembering “having eaten cat a few times during the winter for want of any other meat. It tastes a bit like” — no, not chicken — “rabbit and is rather agreeable on the whole.” “Barsky . . . was interrupted — first by ‘the tearing roar of planes,’ then by the ‘dry, gravel-like sound’ of falling bombs.” It’s not all in the details – but what a difference they make.
It was a civil war made famous by the famous: Picasso, Joan Miró, Martha Gellhorn, Ernest Hemingway, John Dos Passos, Muriel Rukeyser, Stephen Spender, André Malraux, George Orwell, Langston Hughes, and their works continue to move audiences. You may not finish Rhodes’s tale with any greater insight than you had before you started; you will, leastways, have contracted a good case of the furies. Still, war breeds its own dark humor, and the best line goes to our by-now-old friend, Internationalist volunteer doctor Barsky (Rhodes, rightly, snatched it for the title, but like a great song, it can be played again and again): “War is psychologically like hell, supernatural like it and also, as we have been taught to expect, full of good company.”