Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Why military history is good for you

Inspired by the well-known list of the world's shortest books (Italian War Heroes; Who's Who in Poland; A Treasury of Scandinavian Humor; etc.) I once proposed to write a book entitled Great Jewish Foxhunters. This was back in my foxhunting days, when I bet I was the only person in the hunt field ever to formulate a phrase in his mind along the lines of, "The hounds are farblunget again."

I mention this example of mutually exclusive categories as I have had the feeling, especially of late, that the overlap of readers of this blog with readers of military history may be equally vanishing. But it needn't be
(and I don't say that merely because today is the official publication date of my new book Perilous Fight, about the naval War of 1812).

For one thing, war is important whether you like it or not. Not just whether wars are fought, but how they are fought at the operational and political level has had enormous consequences for the world. As Clemenceau said (which we all, of course, recall from our repeated viewings of Dr. Strangelove): "War is too important to be left to the generals."

But war is also the subject of many of the best things ever written. The reasons for this I think are simple, though not often expressed.

One is that war is one of the few things in life in which reality conforms naturally to the drama of literary form: war is exciting whether you like it or not. Paul Fussell remarked that if his book on World War I had a subtitle, it would have been "An Inquiry into the Curious Literariness of Real Life."

The other reason is akin to the point Calvin Trillin made about his series on small-town murders in The New Yorker many years ago. A grim choice of topic, he readily acknowledged; but what drew him to it, he explained, was not an interest in the gruesome per se but rather the fact that when such an unusual and dramatic event occurs, it lays bare the real connections and nuances of a community that are hidden in normal times; it focuses attention and recollection and offers a window on human nature that is normally firmly shut, and well guarded.

"Ten best" lists and their kin are the curse of the Web, and not having read every work of military history I don't feel remotely qualified to say which are "the best." But here is a list of some of the classics that to me exemplify military history as literature. They are a mix of memoir, fiction, narrative, and analysis that I think offer a persuasive introduction to the genre for someone new to it.

In no particular order:

Winston S. Churchill. The Second World War. 
Yes, I know all the criticisms of this six-volume history–memoir. It is self-serving, it is selective, it is heavily ghost-written, it might be Exhibit A of the bromide that "history is written by the winners." It is also brilliant, fascinating, and extraordinary. You can get the correctives elsewhere.

Siegfried Sassoon. Memoirs of Fox-Hunting Man; Memoirs of an Infantry Officer; Sherston's Progress.
Sassoon's thinly fictionalized memoir of the First World War captures the terrible fascination of war for the generation whose ideals of courage ran headlong into the brutal realities of modern technological slaughter on the battlefield. The writing is beautiful and elegiacal, but it is Sassoon's wry and unsparing examination of his own naivete — both in his maniacal courage in the trenches and in his subsequent Quixotic protest against the war — that elevates it to the sublime. 

Michael B. Oren. Six Days of War.
James M. McPherson. Battle Cry of Freedom.
Two near-perfect examples of big-picture military history, one about the 1967 Israeli–Arab war, the other the American Civil War, that interweave events on the battlefield with their political, strategic, and social contexts.

Bruce Catton. A Stillness at Appomattox.
Catton showed what a journalist's sensibility to detail, image, personality, and story can bring to serious history. Academics still routinely sniff that such "popular" narrative histories lack "analysis" and (a favorite line) offer "nothing that historians don't already know." Catton showed why they also sell.

Richard Rhodes. The Making of the Atomic Bomb.
By far the most complete history of the Manhattan Project, this is also a profound exploration of the sprawling interconnections between war, science, and society in the modern world. (And it turns out that physics can be as exciting as war in the hands of a skilled storyteller.)

E. B. Sledge. With the Old Breed.
The memoirs of a quiet Marine in World War II; a brutal account of the terrible face of battle, all the more powerful for its matter-of-fact honesty — the "real war" that usually never gets into the books.

Paul Fussell. The Great War and Modern Memory.
The way literature, culture, and language shape the meaning of war, even as war creates its own new myths: the legacy of war, Fussell argues, reaches far and wide and often unconsciously, from the modern sense of irony to images of sunsets to reflexive bureaucratic euphemisms.