Six veterans of the International Brigade gathered at the old Florida Hotel in the Four Hills area of Southeast Madrid to discuss their chaotic battles against Franco and his fascist allies and their trysts with Martha Gellhorn. Some weren't sure which were which.
A quick poll of the attendees divulged that none had read the 4-page essay, In Search of My Brother The Communist by Howard Henry, which should have been required reading and led the host to choosing this book. Most had read Rhodes' Preface which included this explanation of why this was not designed or presented as a history text on the war:
"Many books have been written about the Spanish Civil War. Few of them explore the aspects of the war that interest me. This book only incidentally concerns Spanish politics. Spain today is a democracy. Who was a communist, who a fascist, who connived with whom in the Spanish labyrinth are questions for academics to mull. I was drawn, rather, 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. If destructive technology amplifies violence, constructive technology amplifies compassion, and the lessons of technology are universal."
(The "Today in History" feature of the Albuquerque Journal listed today Thursday 18 November 2021, as the 45th anniversary of the Spanish Parliament declaring in 1976 that Spain is now (again) a democracy after 37 years as a dictatorship.)
The stories of the attendees varied accordingly:
Tom: I liked it a lot. One could write another book with more military history and tactics, but this was not that book. In just filling in the history between stories, Rhodes did a good job. I was shocked that George Orwell not only participated, but took a bullet through the neck. Just an inch or two, and we would have been deprived of 1984 and so much more. A
Jeff: I felt the same, would give it an A. Because of my ignorance of the war, I wanted more background on what started the war. This provided considerable information. A
Charlie: I enjoyed it. A- There was a lack of the antecedents of the war, could have used another chapter, plus pictures of the development process for Guernica, etc.
Keith: Several points. This was not a military history, it read more like a novel. Very unique aspect. I only found one instance of humor: When the English nurse Patience Darton slapped the Spanish cook, she didn't exhibit patience! (and neither were her bosses, they sent her to the front.) The book was very stilted toward the republicans. If one wanted to obtain a summary of the Spanish Civil War, read Part III. Grade: B
Peter: I can't fake a grade - I did not read the book!
Mike: I initially read this book over a year ago, when I picked it after discussing and rewriting some of Howard Henry's essay on his brother who was recruited (and killed at Belchite) at age 19. I have since re-read sections many times. Interesting in relation to Keith's comment, I felt that reading Part I would give any reader a feel of the brutality and the desperateness of the Spanish Civil War. Since then, I find that one can pick up this book anywhere and read an anecdote and find an interesting story (not to compare Rhodes with Nabokov, but this is a similar feeling I had with Speak, Memory!) Grade: A
and by cable, far away from the front lines:
Wish I could join in the discussion today, but I'm 1,700 miles away on St. Simons Island sitting on my balcony and watching
the final phase of the operation begun two years ago to salvage the Korean car carrier Golden Ray
carrying 4,200 BMWs that
capsized in the sound here in September 2019. It is fascinating to watch.
Reading Richard Rhodes' Hell and Good Company
was educational for me. Although I knew about the Spanish Civil War--the
timeframe, the combatants, the International Brigade, the influences on Hemingway, etc.--I knew little about the locations
of the bloodier battles in Basque country and despite Picasso's famous painting little about how that war could be viewed as
a preview of the role the bombing and killing of civilians would play in future wars. I thought Rhodes did a good job in using
lesser-known witnesses and participants in the war to tell the story. I would certainly recommend it to my friends who are
history buffs. A-Regards, Jack
Subject: Book review
Robert Simon notes on Hell and Good Company
I did not enjoy the book as much as I thought I would.
I was chastened by the comments at last month’s meeting on the disjointed anecdotes and lack
of plot and found myself believing this book’s structure similarly contained disjointed anecdotes and lacked a coherent plot.
This book also lacked the type of comprehensive information and coherence that other histories I have read recently contained, including Alexander
Hamilton and Grant by Chernow and the earlier biography by David McCullough of Harry Truman.
This book seemed to try to weave a narrative from bits and pieces such as personal letters and English language newspaper articles. It seemed more
like a term paper to me.
The closest comparison I can make is to River of Doubt by Millard that utilized notes from journals made during Teddy Roosevelt’s expedition down an
It has the same myopic view. The opposite of the kind of comprehensive history I enjoy such as Blood and Thunder or Alexander Hamilton that provide
a comprehensive view of the historic landscape.
For example, there was very little information on the changing fronts and pitifully little information on the military maneuvering of Franco and the
Republican and Communists forces and almost no information on the general populous.
The only facts I learned from the book about Franco were that he was educated in Spain’s military academy, he enlisted the Africa Corp soldiers as
mercenaries, he failed in his attack on Madrid, and that his winning strategy was to cut the country in half by attacking the north first and then pushing to
the Mediterranean along the south side of the Erbo River. If I am correct this was the same strategy employed by the Romans fo control northern Spain
The only thing I learned from the book about Franco’s military strategy was that he, like Grant at Vicksburg, suppressed any resistance or attack from
the rear before attacking his primary target.
I guess I learned that the Republican cause was lost when it failed to sever the Nationalist movement to the Mediterranean when its attempt to attack
across the Erbo failed to stop Franco from cutting off the North.
On balance I learned a lot about wartime medical services through the experiences of the number of medical person’s involvement in the civil war.
One thing that intrigued me was how soon World War II began after the Spanish Civil War ended.
I think that my masochistic appreciation for lengthy comprehensive histories may have started as a young person when I was fascinated by William
Shirer’s Rise and Fall of the Third Reich and Anti-intellectualism in American Life by Richard Hofstadter.
The moral I take away from this book is ism’s can be deadly things. It seems like the Spanish Civil War was largely driven by commitments to
Communism, Fascism, and Nationalism on the winning side vs. Republicanism on the losing side.
My grade is B.
Review of Hell and Good Company by Richard Rhodes
Before reading this book, I knew practically nothing about the Spanish Civil War. I wasn’t particularly
interested in learning about it, either. Nevertheless, I read the book and did learn something.
At first I thought this was an historical account of the war with an excessive amount of unnecessarily
detailed information about weaponry and military equipment. Then, the war seemed to move from the
focal point of the narrative to the backdrop as a number of human stories took center stage. The rest of
the book fluctuated between the two perspectives.
Based on the notes, the book is well-researched and responsible. I found it to be readable, though not
particularly enjoyable. I did find the stories of the literary crew, the doctors, nurse Darton, and the
artists interesting -- not fascinating nor essential to getting a picture of the actual war, but interesting, nevertheless. The focus on the advances in medical techniques and procedures resulting from the
necessities of war that runs throughout the book, I believe, is an important contribution to the
1) Eleanor Roosevelt, Hemingway, Orwell, Dos Passos, Robles, Picasso, Míro, et. al. – it felt at
times like the author was deliberately “name-dropping” rather than providing other sets of eyes
through which to view the conflict. Most of the stories weren’t developed particularly
2) I generally shudder at the supposedly erudite over-interpreting works of art. And that’s how I
reacted to the discussions of Guernica and Catalan Peasant in Revolt. I found the ever-so-long-and-detailed description of Picasso’s Guernica and its creation, for example, to be calorie-less
fodder and pointless. The power of the piece – which is enormous – was not in any way
enhanced by Rhodes’ writings and (presumably borrowed) observations.
3) The afore-mentioned military detail could – and probably should, in my view – have been put
in footnotes rather than in the text.
4) Even though there is a tremendous amount of detail in the early parts of the book, I can’t
help but feel as if the war itself was treated somewhat superficially.
So, even though I’m undecided as to whether this book is a fair recounting of the Spanish Civil War with
interesting but mostly unnecessary human-interest stories or whether it is a collection of human interest
stories about famous people who had various interactions with the war as a backdrop, I found the book
to be a decent read and of satisfactory interest. And I learned some things, about the war, about
medicine, and about the characters highlighted. Thus, reading Hell and Good Company wasn’t a waste
I rate it a B+.