After I read about Simon Bolivar, the South American Liberator, the next historical figure I became curious about was Che Guevara. I knew nothing about him except for a scene I recollected from the movie The Motorcycle Diaries, where a young Ernesto "Che" Guevara—at the time a medical student—tended to lepers who other doctors refused to treat.
In North America, university students stereotypically wear Che Guevara t-shirts and hang his posters on their dorm walls. I wondered how many actually read his story.
Once again I searched online for a definitive biography, and in Che Guevara's case, it was Jon Lee Anderson's book—Che Guevara: A Revolutionary Life.
What stood out about Che was his headstrong nature. He suffered from a lifetime of debilitating asthma, yet as a youth willed himself across the continent on a motorcycle, and in adulthood he led guerrilla armies in the jungles of Cuba during the revolution in the 1960's. His conviction for the revolution also led to the brutal killing of his foes.
Unlike commanders in most historical wars who lead from afar but rarely participate in combat, guerrilla warfare required Che to bear arms alongside his comrades in gunfights throughout Cuba's Sierra Maestra mountain range. Che's men were disciplined by both intense military training and the specter of death that hung over their heads if convicted of treason or desertion.
You can believe what you want about his communist ideology, but in the book you learn that Che was respected because he lived up to the words he preached. Despite victory in the revolution and rising to power in Cuba, Che refused to be paid more than the common bureaucrat and lived from meager means in a humble small house. How many despots—whether communist or fascist—give up the wealth that comes with absolute power?
Che's other ideology, that guerrilla warfare would lead successful revolutions throughout South America and the World, and his belief that his presence was required in the opening of the guerrilla fronts, would be his downfall, as he was captured and killed in the Bolivian mountains in 1967 as he tried to lead the revolution home to Buenos Aires.
Like Bolivar, I loved this book but it felt like too long at times—it took me a few months to read but well worth the deeply researched story. Definitely a great read for fanatics of history, but casual readers might be better served by one of the many biopics and movies about Che Guevara.