Over the last several months as political passions have ramped ever higher, despite seeming to peak last year during the election, I’ve ended up thinking again and again about a book I worked on, General Escobar’s War. It’s not about politics. Or ideology. It’s a book about how one man manages to hold tightly to duty, honor, and integrity in the midst of a whirlwind of destruction.
General Antonio Escobar was a real person, a Catholic layman who firmly believed that his oath to defend the government meant that during the Spanish Civil War he was bound to serve the Republic to the best of his abilities, and to do so according to his moral principles. Many of his fellow Catholics were drawn instead to serve in the Falange, including Escobar’s own son. As anyone who has read a history of the conflict knows, there were myriad splinter groups and factions fighting during the war. But an oath is an oath, the General stubbornly believed, and duty bound him to the Republic.
After the war ended, Escobar was imprisoned, tried, and executed by firing squad. He forgave his executioners, telling the commander of the squad that the men were just fulfilling their duty.
José Luis Olaizola’s book imagines Escobar writing his memoirs as he awaits execution. Told in the first person, General Escobar’s War enters Escobar’s mind as he thinks back over his actions in the time leading up to and during the war. He records his deep sorrow and disgust of the atrocities being committed, especially the anti-Catholic bent of the factions supporting the Republic. His commitment to Catholicism is questioned by the other officers on the Republican side. But despite everything, Escobar carries out his duty to the best of his abilities, intervening at times to save innocents including several bishops. Wounded in fighting, his struggles during recovery only deepen his faith and commitment.
The author based his portrayal of the general on historical fact and the accounts of witnesses, including the general’s son and nephews. In the preface to his book, Olaizola says, “This book is not an account of a war, but rather an account of a man who lived a war… If only what is recounted had been fiction.”
In our own day, in our own country here in the United States, there’s undoubtedly been a great deal of unrest and loud political disagreement, of ideological hatreds and poisonous rhetoric. We’ve seen the damage hate can do to the social fabric of a nation, seen how races and religions can be destructively targeted by demagogues and physically attacked by those blinded by wickedness. But, thank God, we are not at the brink of the sort of civil war that tore Spain apart in the 1930s. Or the type of civil war that ruptured our own country seventy years before that. This isn’t to say we could never get to that point. But there’s nothing stopping you or me from trying to be the remedy.
That remedy is people who regardless of political commitments can live with integrity and calm, who can oppose moral wrong even if it is being done by their “side”, who can try to do what is right despite what the cost may be. People who can look at others with whom they disagree without hatred or malice. Men and women like General Escobar.
And that’s why I keep thinking about this book.