Posts from October 2012
October 2nd, 2012
Our books today are the three volumes of J. F. C. Fuller’s magnificent The Decisive Battles of the Western World and their Influence upon History, specifically the handy paperback set issued by Da Capo in 1987 and re-titled A Military History of the Western World. All of which might sound like a forbidding tangle, but once you start reading Fuller, you forget it all – he’s a skilled storyteller, and his comprehensive, wide-ranging interest all things military is positively infectious. In fact, Fuller is so wide-ranging that this is one of those rare instances where I consider the American title of his masterpiece better than the British one; our author was not only a staff officer during the First World War but also a postwar fascist and heartfelt dabbler in crackpot mystical mumbo-jumbo – he was well-steeped in the world, in other words, unafraid of confronting either the physical, the theoretical, or the metaphysical. He read voraciously and wrote voluminously, and he thought very deeply on all the ways mankind’s ferocious internecine clashes both fuelled history and drew fuel from it – his huge work is by no means a simple run-through of troop movements, as is clear from this little aside from Volume I, “From the Earliest Times to the Battle of Lepanto,” about his theory as to why the Rhine became Rome’s northern frontier:
Yet there was a deeper reason still, deeper than the loss of Roman vigour; it must be sought in the character of Alexander himself. In spite of the glamour of his age, he was a splendid rather than an heroic figure. Though not lacking in courage or pertinacity, as a leader of men he cannot compare with Julius Caesar. He was a tolerant opportunist who, by means of his policy of divide et impera, became the managing director rather than the monarch of his Empire. He believed in Rome as a great business, a vast monopoly, and looked upon states and frontiers as bonds and securities. He lacked the power to electrify men and compel them to accomplish the seemingly impossible which distinguishes the man of genius from the merely great.
In some important ways, Fuller was one of the architects of what we now think of as modern warfare, and that fact is never clearer in A Military History of the Western World than when his narrative reaches just such junctions of change. He’s always mindful of how war changes history, but he’s acutely sensitive to how war itself changes:
Napoleon’s strategy failed, not only because his means were inadequate, or because his presumption was inordinate, but because his policy was out of tune with the spirit of his age. He had aimed at establishing a universal empire and had followed in the footsteps of the great conquerors of the past. But times had changed. No longer was Europe a conglomeration of tribes and peoples, but instead a mass of crystallizing nations, each seeking its separate path towards the illusive pinnacle of a new presumption – its personal deification.
At Jenna, Napoleon destroyed not only a feudal army, but the last vestiges of the feudal idea, and out of the ashes arose a national army, which at Leipzig destroyed him. On the corpse-strewn fields by the Elster, present-day Europe writhed out of its medieval shell.
It was in Fuller’s time – and in largely through Fuller’s agency – that just such another calamitous transformation came upon the world of war, this time in the realm of his particular speciality, mechanization. He began his military career in the Africa of the Boers; he saw cavalry-charges with sabers waving, and he imagined less fleshy, less stoppable variation on that theme. Fuller was that most politically useful of scholars: a theorist with a coldly quotable literary style. Never more so than when he was writing about his brainchild, the modern tank:
It solved the two outstanding difficulties – namely, how to harmonize movement an fire power and movement and protection. It increased mobility by substituting mechanical power for muscular; it increased security by neutralizing the bullet with armour plate; and it increased offensive power by relieving the soldier from the necessity of carrying his weapons and the horse from hauling them. Because the tank protected the soldier dynamically, it enabled him to fight statically; it superimposed naval tactics on land warfare.
Virtually every page of these three volumes is like this: intelligent, scrupulous, debatable, vaguely disturbing. You never lose the feeling that you’re in the hands of an enormously well-read authority, but you’re also fairly often reminded – on some rhetorical level that would be hard to pinpoint – that you’re in the presence of a military thinker well-loved by Adolf Hitler.
I imagine there are few military history buffs out there who haven’t already studied their Fuller, but reading him is to be urged just the same. This is stark, grand, appalling, stuff, but it – more than anything else – is mankind’s most unambiguous history. And Fuller is its master historian.
April 16th, 2012
Our book today is most commonly translated into English as the Chronicles of the great fourteenth century historian Jean Froissart, who was born (somewhere in the 1330s) in Valenciennes, a French-speaking Netherlander town in what was then the independent kingdom of Hainault. He was that familiar writerly pattern, an unusually clever son of unimaginative but well-off suburban parents, and the wide world beckoned. At first, Froissart’s timing was impeccable – in his twenties, good-looking, exceptionally smart, memorably articulate, ambitious without being grating: he was able to make himself known at court, and since 1361 saw the dawn of peace between England and France, a person could travel around without necessarily risking getting killed (bandits still haunted every forest road, but that’s what armed guards were for).
Froissart travelled to England, perhaps on a low-level embassy from John of Hainault (uncle to the Count) or perhaps on his own speculative dime – in either case, he was soon attached to the household of that most famous Hainaulter of all, the short, boisterous, utterly wonderful Philippa, who became the queen of King Edward III of England. Froissart began his service to the Queen in the fairly conventional manner of churning out pages and pages of gawd-awful verse, but the whole time he was doing that, he was talking and especially listening to everybody around him, including all the veterans of England’s late wars with France (and not just English veterans – any number of French veterans were hanging around London in the 1360s, hoping – or not – to be ransomed back home). He quickly conceived that there was an epic story to be told here, and since he had the essential knack of making friends, he set himself the task of telling that story. He travelled all over England, ventured into Scotland and Wales, ransacked every royal or ecclesiastical archive he could get his hands on, and began amassing the materials he’d need to write the Chronicles, all with the royal blessing (since the pure of heart are seldom afraid of history’s verdicts).
He was travelling on the Continent in 1369 when the news reached him in Brussels that Queen Philippa was dead. The news broke his heart, of course (that was its universal effect), and it also changed his plans: instead of returning to England, he began hunting up wealthy patrons closer to home – and he began writing his Chronicles. He took advantage of earlier written accounts (as well as all those first-hand testimonies) and used his own abundant literary talents to bring everything vividly to life, including those events that long pre-dated his arrival in England, like the epic sea-battle King Edward fought against the Spaniards in 1350 at Winchelsea:
On that day, I was told by some who were with him, he was in a lighter mood than he’d ever been seen before. He told his minstrels to strike up a dancing tune which Sir John Chandos, who was standing beside him, had recently brought back from Germany. Out of sheer excited happiness, he made Sir John sing with the minstrels, to his own vast amusement. At the same time, he kept glancing up at the look-out he’d posted to watch for the Spaniards. While the King was enjoying all this fun (and his knights were enjoying seeing him enjoy himself), the look-out shouted, “Ship, ahoy! And she looks like a Spaniard!”
His book has something of the sweep of panorama, but its most charming and memorable segments almost all on a smaller scale. More than one critic over the centuries has compared Froissart’s abilities in this vein to those of his contemporary Chaucer, and the comparison is apt; Froissart the chronicler tried his best to verify events and square accounts, but Froissart the dramatist breaks loose of the annal-form whenever possible in order to shed some human light on his proceedings – as when he describes one little moment during John of Gaunt’s frustrated 1373 expedition to France:
The English struck camp and moved off in the direction of Soissons, always staying near both rivers and fertile farmlands. As they went, they were continually flanked by some four hundred lances led by the Lord of Clisson, the Lord of Laval, the Viscount of Rohan and others. Sometimes they rode so near each other that they could easily have fought if they’d wanted to, and often they talked to one another. For example, Sir Henry Percy, one of the most gallant of the English knights, was once riding across country with his men, and Sir Guillaume des Bordes and Sir Jean de Bueil were riding with theirs, each keeping to his own path. Sir Henry, who was on a white charger, said to Sir Aimery of Namur (the son of the Count), who was alongside him on the left, “It’s a fine day for hawking! Why don’t you go for a kill, since you’re used to flying?” “Yes,” said Sir Aimery, dancing his horse a little out of line, “it’s true – a good day for hawking. If it were up to me, we’d certainly go a-hawking on some nearby prey.” “I think you would, Aimery,” replied Sir Henry. “Just persuade your men to take off – there’s good game to be had!” In this bantering mood, Sir Henry Percy rode for some time alongside the French, talking to that splendid young soldier, Aimery the Bastard of Namur. The two sides could have come to it many times if they’d wished, but instead they rode forward with perfect discipline.
There are hardly any modern-era English translations of Froissart’s Chronicles, alas, and the few we have often as not manage to strangle the jingling, nimble cadence of his prose (that above excerpt is by yours truly, only because every existing English version I could find had taken worldly raillery and made it dull). And to add insult to injury, most of the English-language editions ever made of the Chronicles abridge the hell out of the work, essentially leaving in the battles and the jousting and cutting everything else. The original Froissart is broadly discursive, enormously enjoyable, and as thick as a cinder block – maybe some enterprising publisher will craft a gorgeous, limited-edition unabridged hardcover one of these days. I’d buy a copy.
February 8th, 2012
Humans fight global wars, but they also write great books about them. War is famously a scourge, but from a purely book-worm point of view, library shelves would be much poorer without the books. The 20th Century was the apex of human social convulsion, the ultimate trauma of the species so far, and in many ways the crisis point of that trauma was the Second World War, which began in a tangle of treaties and duplicity like something out of the 19th Century, worked its way through half a decade as the apotheosis of so-called ‘conventional’ warfare, and then ended on a bizarre, terrifying note that belonged to some unguessable future.
And the war produced books in such a vast number and variety that it’s almost impossible to imagine the literary landscape without them. Any student of history must have a full book case devoted to the Second World War, even with serious pruning, and more truly great volumes on the subject come out every year. So an entry like this can’t do more than scratch the surface of that mighty mound of passion and research and erudition – but even so, and apropos of nothing, here are six really good WWII books:
Munich: The Price of Peace – Naturally, we start with the hope that none of it might have happened. Maybe the last person to hold that hope – and certainly the person who felt it the strongest – was British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, who exhausted himself in a series of increasingly furtive and hallucinatory conferences in 1938 with one goal in mind: to find some agreement, some terms short of open war, that German dictator Adolf Hitler would accept. That frantic last season of hope was never chronicled better than in Telford Taylor’s magnificent 1979 doorstop, in which he takes us through every twist and turn in the story, always bringing us back to what he saw as the point of it all:
It is not for us to criticize them; so do most of us today, despite looming perils such as poverty, pollution, resource depletion, terrorism, and nuclear warheads. Munich does not tell us how to overcome these hazards, but it is a potent and historically valid symbol of the dangers of not facing up to unpleasant realities. That is not a new lesson, but it is a great one, and it is the lesson of Munich.
London at War: 1939-1945 – Chamberlain was right to hope, but he was wrong to place any hope in Hitler – war came, and the nations of Europe, with their sleeping vigilance and their relic armies, fell like ten-pins before the Wehrmacht Hitler had so zealously built while professing peace. In what seemed like no time at all, England stood alone against the greatest concentration of military power the Western world had seen since Napoleon Bonaparte. German bombs rained down on English cities; German U-boats strangled the stream of imports on which England depended, and German invasion forces massed on the other side of the Channel. It (and only it, nothing before and certainly nothing after) was the perfect moment for blowhard demagogue Winston Churchill, who managed in those alone-days to say exactly the words his beleaguered country needed to hear, and in great historian Philip Ziegler’s intense 1995 account, we’re reminded not only that England’s trial was concentrated in London’s but that London’s trial lasted well beyond that initial period of solitary defiance. Ziegler ends on a note of quiet approval, of course:
So only the memory is left; not the memory of a golden age perhaps, but still one deserving much congratulation. There is much that Londoners can look back on with pride, remarkably little about which they need to feel ashamed. The war had been a test unexampled in its relentlessness and its ferocity. Its legacies did not prove as potent as had once been hoped, the opportunities that it created were frittered away, but no one looking back on those dreadful years can doubt that the test had been passed with honour.
Eagle Against the Sun – Large variables were at work backstage of that war London fought alone, foremost two: Hitler’s mad-in-hindsight decision to turn east and invade Russia, and Japan’s mad-in-hindsight decision to attack the United States at Pearl Harbor. The former drew the deadly Nazi focus away from an island that would otherwise have been all but helpless before it, and the latter completely changed the nature of the war itself by introducing an enormous new dimension – one recounted with workhorse proficiency by Ronald Spector in his 1985 best-seller:
The war between the United States and Japan was in many ways a unique and unprecedented conflict – the first, and probably the last, to be waged on such a scale and upon such a stage. It began with a stunning display of air power by the Japanese and ended with the most deadly air raids in history by the Americans. As a naval war, it was unparalleled. More battles were waged at sea and more warships sunk than in all other twentieth century naval campaigns combined.
Silent Victory – that war between the United States and Japan had a frightfully modern cast to it: it was made possible, entirely carried out, and horrifyingly ended by new technologies. Thousands of miles of open ocean separated the combatants, so operations depended on sea and air craft – an Iliad fought almost entirely out of sight of land. Veteran submariner Clay Blair, in his absorbing 1975 landmark study, concentrates on one aspect of that bizarre new war: the fight going on below the waves, between the submarine forces of the U.S. and Japan. And just as submarine warfare was by nature far more concentratedly personal than land warfare (close quarters, isolated bands of men working in darkness, etc.), so Blair’s book never strays far from the innumerable small-scale stories he faithfully collected. This is a book full of skippers, not grand strategies:
Tarpon, commanded by Lewis Wallace, was twice “pooped” (swamped by huge waves). She rolled violently and took heavy water down the conning tower hatch. The water rushed into the pump room, a compartment below the control room. Before Wallace got control of the boat, water was waist deep in the pump room and two feet deep in the control room. A great deal of machinery was flooded out. After Wallace got the damage repaired, he sighted one fair-sized Japanese ship sailing alone. He made a sonar approach. It was botched when a torpedoman, distracted by a leak, accidentally fired a torpedo.
Bodyguard of Lies – Just as the world of submarine warfare took place literally below the surface of the visible conflict, so too there was from the start of the war a vigorous but largely unseen war being fought beneath the battles and the headlines: the espionage war, without which no war can be fought or won. Anthony Cave Brown tells something of that story is his big 1975 masterpiece about the carefully-orchestrated counter-espionage campaign conducted by the Allies in order to keep the invasion of Normandy a secret from the Germans. Brown’s book is full of heroes readers have never heard of, victories nobody ever saw, and a bravery very different in appearance from the bravery for which it paved the path. Brown is thus sensitive to the unseen side of history and can evoke it even in the most public of war’s spaces:
There on the beaches of Normandy, so it is said, one can hear the sounds of old battles in the wind. It is the same phenomenon that one hears onthe gentle rises at Waterloo. For those who require monuments, there are strange, rust-red shapes sticking out of the sea, looking so remote from present history that they might have been there since the days of Richard the Lionheart. They are the remnants of the merchantmen sunk as breakwaters for the Mulberry harbors. The seas wash over these relics, rising and falling with the fierce tides. But they are not destroyed. They remain as a testament to that time and place where the fates changed horses an history changed its tune.
A Time for Trumpets – Despite those hidden wars behind the scenes and under the waves – and despite the staggeringly enormous battles being fought on Germany’s Eastern front – for most readers the Second World War will always be epitomized by the newsreel-ready battles fought on land between the Allied and German ground troops, and in the popular imagination (to the extent that the popular imagination even remembers WWII), one of the greatest of these battles will always be the so-called “Battle of the Bulge,” Hitler’s enormous last-ditch effort to punch back at the wave of Allied forces inexorably closing in on him from the west. Charles MacDonald fought in that battle, and in 1984 he gave it a proud and durable monument in his oft-reprinted book, in which the unassuming valor of his comrades is given center stage:
Hitler saw the American soldier as the weak component (the “Italians”) of the Western alliance, the product of a society too heterogeneous to field a capable fighting force. Bouck, Crawford, Tsakanikas, Umanoff, Moore, Reid, Descheneaux, O’Brien, Jones, Erlenbusch, Goldstein, McKinley, Mandichak, Spigelman, Garcia, Russamano, Weiszyck, Nawrocki, Campbell, Barcellona, Leinbaugh. Black men too, although their color was hardly to be reflected in their names. The heterogeneity was indeed there, but at many a place – at Krinkelt-Rochenrath, at St. Vith, atop the Skyline Drive, at the Parc Hotel, Echternach, Malmedy, Stavelot, Stoumont, Bastogne, Verdenne, Baraque de Fraiture, Hotton, Noville – the American soldier put the lie to Hitler’s theory. His was a story to be told to the sound of trumpets.
Obviously, six more great books could be substituted for these – sooner or later at Stevereads we’ll get to all of them (several of you have asked for similar lists devoted to both the Third Reich and the Holocaust, and they’re coming) – but these certainly deserve inclusion in the over-burdened WWII bookcase – and if you don’t have such a bookcase, these six books are a great place to start.
February 1st, 2012
Our book today is Azar Gat’s monumental War in Human Civilization from Oxford University Press, which arrived on the scene in 2006, just a bit too early for me to give it the full panoramic treatment in Open Letters Monthly. Gat has been studying military history for a long time (and lives and works in a militarist state), and this 800-page inquiry is likely his masterpiece on the subject. It’s certainly meant to be comprehensive, as the jacket design clearly shows – the front is a carving from the reign of Ashurbanipal 2700 years ago, and the back is a freeze-frame of the second plane about to strike the Twin Towers in 2001 (comprehensive and a bit controversial, perhaps, since I, at least, would argue against considering the 9/11 attacks actual warfare, at least in any sense of the word Ashurbanipal would have recognized).
The book is a grand heavy thing, one of those quietly magnificent Oxford productions that seem to come and go every season, regularly making the ‘best books of the year’ lists in the more abstruse literary journals and then disappearing into the night. War in Human Civilization, for instance, had only a modest print-run in hardcover and an infinitesimal one in paperback – and its readers kept it, since you virtually never see it turn up in used bookstores (to those of you who usually use such observations to comment “I see it everywhere! My local Annie’s Book Swap has ten! They’re giving them away!” – kindly pipe down). Indeed, it’s so scarce I had to settle for a copy whose previous owner had the barbaric habit of underlining in ink. Shudder.
Still, Gat’s book is worth the effort to find. This is classic ‘disinterested’ big-scope historical inquiry, only one part the old familiar Agincourt-Waterloo-Somme shuffle that usually forms the whole of books titled “War in Human Civilization,” and the other parts meta-analysis in the Toynbee manner, always thought-provoking and often brilliant. Gat studies the causes of warfare, the nature of the decisions societies make when they choose it, and he’s shrewd about its long-term costs. Of course, Toynbee-style meta-analysis can tempt just about anybody to the occasional wooden phrasing (it sure prompted Toynbee to a few), and Gat isn’t immune:
It may not be superfluous at this time to reiterate some comments by way of clarification. My discussion of human belligerency does not assume that all tribal societies, or all people, were equally war-like. There has always been a great variation between societies, arising from their specific and complex set of circumstances.
That first line, “It may not be superfluous at this time to reiterate some comments by way of clarification” is almost comic in its Casaubon-esque donnishness (the entire line can be reduced to the word “again”), but it’s mercifully rare in the course of War in Human Civilization. What’s far more common are passages that distill an enormous amount of learning into observations that both summarize and provoke:
Throughout history, sieges were slow and laborious, taking many months and years to complete successfully. In regions where fortified cities and fortresses abounded, warfare pretty much revolved around sieges. Armies often concentrated on one selected prize for each annual campaign, as they would do in early modern Europe.
I confess, I love this kind of writing, so studied and yet so interesting – even when I don’t agree with it, or when I think it hits the wrong emphasis. I love authors who pull off such a comprehensive, flexible approach to an enormous subject (John Reader’s Africa is another example that springs to mind). There’s an illuminating bit of deep thinking on virtually every page of Gat’s book, as when he rehearses the old Enlightenment view that selfish autocrats were the ones responsible for the scourge of war – and then deftly explodes it:
According to that view, once the people who carried the burden of war and incurred its costs were given the power to decide, they would recoil from war. However, as already mentioned, the demos was the most bellicose element in Athenian society even though it fought in the army, manned the rowing benches of the Athenian navy, and had to endure war’s destruction and misery, as in the forced evacuation of Attica during the Peloponnesian War. Rome’s proverbial military prowess and tenacity similarly derived specifically from her republican regime, which successfully co-opted the populace for the purpose of war. Indeed, historically, democracies proved particularly tenacious in war precisely because they were socially and politically inclusive. And, again, in pre-modern times they also did not refrain from fighting each other.
Pointing out the continued relevance of Gat’s book would be pretty damn fatuous, and beside the point in any case, at least for me. This is a tough book, a dense one with many subtleties and much deep thought behind it. It’s a great whopping synthesis of its dark topic, however, and it deserves more attention than poor old clueless Oxford University Press ever managed to drum up for it. I’m hardly in a position to criticize them, of course, since I’ve learned first-hand how tricky it can be to promote complex literary endeavors. But still: I bet your local library has a copy of War in Human Civilization that’s been sitting demurely on its shelf since it was bought – you should go and make its acquaintance.
July 30th, 2011
Our book today is Ronald Spector’s 1985 Eagle Against the Sun, the single best account of Japan’s war with the United States during World War Two that’s ever been written in English. The stage is vast, the amount of information (much of it only recently declassified when Spector wrote his book) is staggering, and the whole of it is played out against a backdrop of such epochal importance that the subject has caused more than one competent historian to resort to cribbing, fibbing, or ad-libbing.
Part of the problem is awkwardness. When the Allies defeated Nazi Germany, they dismembered the state and broke up the pieces – all subsequent histories of the Third Reich were about a nation as dead as Carthage or Troy, which made pointed criticisms and sweeping generalizations equally possible (and, sadly, equally tempting). Ordinary German citizens – even the many thousands who were passively complicit in every last thing their Nazi overlords did)(especially them, in fact) – could and did take to talking about the war years as though they’d happened to somebody else, as though they’d been some bad, surreal dream. But the defeated Empire of Japan, although saddled with onerous reparations and defanged of its defenses, was still the same country it had been before the war – complete with the same Emperor. And worse – that country was now an ally of the United States. This state of affairs tended to turn histories of the conflict into weird echo chambers of implication, regret, and backhand diplomacy.
Spector’s book side-steps all of that by assuming an abstract omnipresence that’s virtually Thucydidean. He has vivid powers of dramatization, and he uses them not only on the wild cast of characters big and small who populate his drama but also on the hundreds of battles that punctuate his story. He knows with perfect clarity the enormous size of his undertaking:
The war between the United States and Japan was in many ways a unique and unprecedented conflict – the first, and probably the last, to be waged on such a scale and upon such a stage. It began with a stunning display of air power by the Japanese and ended with the most deadly air raids in history by the Americans. As a naval war, it was unparalleled. More battles were waged at sea and more warships were sunk than in all other twentieth century naval campaigns combined.
And he handles that undertaking adroitly, by taking sides only after he’s carefully laid out every opposing viewpoint. He uses this approach throughout the book, including its two iconic bookends, the two things most people know about the war between the United States and Japan even if they know nothing else – the sneak attack on Pearl Harbor:
The attack on Pearl Harbor has been criticized in retrospect. Samuel Eliot Morison and others point out that the Japanese neglected to attack the critically important repair shops and fuel storage facilities at Pearl Harbor; that they missed the Pacific Fleet’s carriers; and that the sneak attack, coming without declaration of war, united the country as nothing else could have in a terrible resolve to fight to the finish. Far better, they argue, for Japan to have retained her traditional naval strategy of allowing the American Fleet to come to her. Morison points out that the U.S. fleet would have taken at least six to nine months to fight its way through the Marshalls and Carolines, even without sufficient auxiliaries and destroyer protection. This would have given the Japanese ample time to complete their conquests in Southeast Asia.
In response to Morison Admiral Fukudome Shigeru presents the following argument: by using the traditional interception strategy the Japanese navy could not possibly have inflicted greater damage on the American navy than it did, in fact, inflict at Pearl Harbor on the first day of the war. The Pearl Harbor attack delayed the American advance in the central Pacific, Fukudome maintains, not for six to nine months but for almost two years.
… and the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki:
Many historians argue that the bomb was not really needed to bring about the surrender of Japan. That island empire, these critics argue, was so crippled by the cumulative effects of American blockade and bombing that, as Lisle Rose has declared, “she simply could not have continued the war beyond mid-autumn.” Rose attributed the decision to use the bomb to the U.S. Government’s “refusal to rise above wartime emotionalism and the momentum of unrestrained militarism to consider realistically or humanely the plight of Japan.” Other critics of the decision have argued that Truman and his advisers, well aware that Japan was defeated anyway, nevertheless insisted onthe atomic attacks in order to coerce the Soviets by a massive demonstration of America’s new power.
This is a massively judicious, instantly readable, and pleasantly exhaustive account, a necessary part of any WWII military history-buff’s library. I was pleased as a peacock to find a copy the other day and re-read it with such delight, and I’m sure it’ll please you too.
October 29th, 2010
Our book today is Samuel Eliot Morison’s The Two-Ocean War, and it’s a response to the readers (Silent Majority card-members all!) who wrote to me wondering how I, of all people, could recommend an abridged book – in this case Leon Edel’s one-volume version of his massive five-volume biography of Henry James. Surely I, of all people, stood for the purity of the whole work, not the superimposed guesswork of somebody – even the author – deciding which scattered bits will be of interest to the mythical ‘common reader’?
Not a bit of it! Abridgments serve self-evident good purposes, and they can be works of art on their own. There are facets of enjoying a subject that can get dulled or buried entirely when an author who’s done a massive amount of research decides to share the whole of it with his readers. The sheer technical feat of keeping a narrative both coherent and interesting over the course of such an enormous work is within the reach of only a handful of writers, and it becomes all the more impressive when some of those writers can turn around and say, “OK, now that my world-encompassing labors are done, I’m going to write the 200-page book on this subject that was my original intent, and I’m going to make it just as good in its own way as the mother work is in all its splendor.” It takes a certain kind of humility to do that (a humility perhaps brought on by the need to eat, since it’s almost always those 200-page one-volume versions that actually sell) – and a certain kind of craft, which is why you’ll find many such abridgments on my bookshelves.
Morison’s is an obvious and sterling example. In order to generate his gigantic fifteen-volume “History of United States Naval Operations in World War II,” Morison was given a rank and the freedom to move about from ship to ship as the official historian of the greatest naval war in the history of the world. He served on eleven wartime vessels and harvested unprecedented amounts of first-hand information and observation (much of it first-hand – Morison was no desk-bound historian; he served on fast ships, and he put himself in harm’s way), and he had one crucial thing besides: a pronounced flair for writing history. His prose is half-Herodotus and half-Thucydides, bristling with facts and figures but also alive with heartfelt passion.
It goes without saying that I enthusiastically recommend that fifteen-volume account. I’ve read it straight through a few times and also rejoiced in picking up single volumes. In those volumes, Morison allows himself to give his subjects – the major battles, the major figures, the major trends – all the room and detail they deserve. Digression abound and are welcome. But I read very fast, and I devote almost all my waking time to reading, and I’m perfectly well aware that these things aren’t true for most readers in the world – and Morison was well aware of it too. When his publisher (and his long-suffering agent – he wasn’t always the easiest person to get along with) suggested a one-volume abridgment of his life’s crowning achievement, Morison not only jumped into the task with gusto (he jumped into everything with gusto – when he paid a restaurant bill, onlookers got the impression it was the first time a restaurant bill had ever been paid, and they were tempted to applaud) but got it done in time for the Christmas book-buying season.
The Two-Ocean War sold like hotcakes, and deservedly so. In place of the sprawl of the original, Morison’s largely reworked abridgment has the speed and punch of a torpedo. Here, in short order, readers get the whole of the war in the Atlantic and Pacific, from the dark early days when German U-boats, Italian mini-subs, and the mighty Japanese Imperial Navy seemed to have no serious hindrance anywhere in the world. The signal naval victory of those early years was of course the Japanese sneak attack on Pearl Harbor, and Morison gives us a concise look at how such a disaster was possible (modern readers familiar with the details leading up to the 9/11 attacks will find the scenario gruesomely familiar):
A series of false assumptions, both at Washington and Oahu, added up to something as serious as the sins of omission. In Hawaii, the Navy assumed that the Army had gone on full alert, and that the radar warning net was completely operational. The Army assumed that the Navy was conducting an effective air reconnaisance around the island. Admiral Kimmel assumed that aerial torpedoes could not operate in the shoal waters of Pearl Harbor. Both Army and Navy Intelligence officers assumed that Japan was sending all her naval forces south, and that in any event Japan would not be so stupid as to attack Pearl Harbor. In Washington, Colonel Bratton of Army Intelligence assumed that the Pacific Fleet would go to sea after the 27 November “war warning,” so to him the intercepted reports of ships’ positions by the Japanese consulate registered waste effort; and Captain Wilkinson of Naval Intelligence assumed that these reports were simply evidence of the Japanese inordinate love for detail. Rear Admiral Turner of War Plans assumed that this and all other relevant intelligence was going to Admiral Kimmel, and General Gerow of Army War Plans assumed that Kimmel and Short were exchanging every scrap of what they did get, which was considerable. Washington was as vague and uncertain about what was going to happen on the first or second weekend after 27 November as Pearl Harbor itself. It was a case of the blind not leading the blind; false assumptions at both ends of the line.
And Morison is there with us throughout – as the United States, ironically granted a boon at Pearl Harbor (no aircraft carriers were hit, nor were the vast oil tank fields that were well within the range of all those Japanese fighter-planes), rapidly poured men and material and money and technology into fielding a huge navy in both theaters. Morison wisely reminds us that despite this build-up, the numbers in any given engagement still often favored the Axis powers; the flame that animates his thrilling book is heroism, and that goes well with the occasional underdog scrap.
And he’s alive, naturally enough, to the hand of history that lay over it all. This is a quality you’ll find in all of Morison’s books – he’s never so focused on what he’s researching and writing about that he fails to see its wider importance, as in the epic and game-changing Battle of Leyte Gulf, where he pauses even in the midst of the frantic action to recall its larger significance:
Mississippi‘s one salvo, fired at Yamashiro just after Admiral Oldendorf ordered Cease Fire, concluded this major phase or the battle [of Surigao Strait]. Silence followed, as if to honor the passing of tactics which had so long been foremost in naval warfare. The Battles of Lowestoft, Beachy Head, the Capes of the Chesapeake, Trafalgar, Santiago, Tsushimam, Jutland, every major naval action of the past three centuries, had been fought by classic line-of-battle tactics. In the unearthly silence that followed the roar of Oldendorf’s 14-inch and 16-inch guns in Surigao Strait, one could imagine the ghosts of all great admirals, from Raleigh and De Ruyter to Togo and Jellicoe, standing at attention to salute the passing of the kind of naval warfare they all understood. For in those opening minutes of the morning watch of 25 October 1944, Battle Line became as obsolete as the row-galley tactics of Salamis and Syracuse.
Such moments occur often in that fifteen-volume official history, and they’re every bit as moving and powerful – but how many readers can find them? The sheer size of the work can serve to hide its highlights, whereas here they’re served up one after the next in a brilliant performance.
And it’s not the only performance of its kind! In the coming weeks, we’ll take a look at other abridgments that stand as worthy works on their own. My shelves abound with them, and my shelves are at your disposal, after all.
April 11th, 2010
Our book today is The Battle of the Frontiers: Ardennes 1914 by Terence Zuber (The History Press, 2009 – first published in 2007), and as Zuber points out on his first page, “From 20 to 24 August 1914 the French and German armies, each some seventy divisions strong, met head-on in Belgium and Lorraine in the Battle of the Frontiers, one of the most hard-fought, most important and most interesting battles in military history.”
The popular conception of that battle is simple and heartbreaking: the folly of antiquated military tactics crashing rudely and ruthlessly into modern military hardware – gallant French troops, bayonets fixed, marching en masse into lethal German machine gun emplacements only to get mowed down in horrifying numbers. The French, under the mistaken impression that their advance armies in Belgium would be facing minimal German forces, made no preparations for what actually ended up happening – massive German counter-attacks – and so, over the course of three days, the French lost dozens of thousands of men and great heaps of equipment and were forced to surrender all the ground their advances had so quickly gained.
Zuber’s publishers bill his book as the first fully realized history of both the Battle of the Ardennes and the larger Battle of the Frontiers of which it was a critical part, and maybe this is so: certainly Zuber’s book is incredibly, dauntingly detailed. The battle maps require a stint at West Point to readily decipher, and the action descriptions are often an alphabet soup of troop designations:
At 1030 on 23 August 4th Army sent a sobering report to GQG. In II CA the 3 DI was in good shape at Meix devant Virton, but the 4 DI had been thrown out of Bellefontaine and had been ‘sorely tried’. The 3 DIC and 5h Colonial Brigade had also been ‘sorely tried’. XII CA was in good shape and had not even engaged its corps artillery, but was falling back. XVII CA was in poor condition, 33 DI had lost its artillery, 34 DI had been thrown back. XI CA had pulled back to the Semois.
This book’s 300 pages of eye-strainingly tiny type contain innumerable passages like that one – this is no lazily derivative account – which is great news to all future historians, who must of necessity not only include this Zuber’s book in their researches but begin with it, but perhaps a bit more ominous news for general readers, since the author clearly isn’t interested in presenting a narrative account of the events he’s researching.
This isn’t to say he doesn’t have lots of opinions – far from it. One of the persistent myths of World War I’s beginnings is that the German command, forged in the recent exhilarations of the Franco-Prussian War only 40 years earlier, had an institutional aptitude for the military calling, and that this aptitude accounted for a great deal of the successes the Germans enjoyed in the last week of August 1914. Zuber doesn’t believe a word of it:
In the Battle of the Frontiers the argument that the German General Staff had a ‘genius for war’ falls flat on its face. German operational planning in the Ardennes came far closer to military malpractice than to genius. Moltke demonstrated his inability to reach a decision and impose it on his subordinates. The 5th Army attack had no possible operational justification; in fact, the attack was premature and an operational liability.
Still, regardless of the paucity of German planning, the French are the ones who’ve always been excoriated for their idiocy during those pivotal two days, for the foolishness of thinking elan and bravery would win out against rapid-fire artillery. Later generations – indeed, later fighters in that same conflict – would look at illustrations of such 20th century cavalry charges and laugh in contempt. Zuber never allows himself to express anything so clouding as contempt, but his evaluations are remorseless.
And they turn up little details that surprise – as when he’s discussing the key French advance into the woods outside the town of Ethe:
This may be the first time in modern warfare that a major manoeuvre unit would be cut off and destroyed solely by firepower, without an infantry assault. Ethe demonstrated that the German army had drawn the appropriate conclusions from the technological progress – smokeless gunpowder, the magazine-fed rifle, the machine gun and quick-firing artillery – that had led to an exponential increase in the effectiveness of firepower and expanded the depth of the battlefield, while the French were still essentially thinking in terms of the smaller Napoleonic battlefield.
(Other little details, equally fascinating, are far more disruptive to the standard misremembering of the Great War, such as the fully-documented fact that many French soldiers would ‘play dead’ among the fallen in order to get the chance to shoot the advancing Germans in the back – and that they often shot down German ambulance workers coming to tend to the wounded from both sides)
Zuber knows better than anybody the gamut of popular simplifications of his subject (he at one point makes a withering aside about armchair generals studying “little maps with big arrows”), but in his account, the truth is simpler and less dramatic:
The fascination, common to almost all French soldiers and historians, with German trenches and French bayonet charges has nothing to do with actual combat. It was a means of explaining French defeat that emphasized French heroism and avoided confronting German tactical superiority. For modern historians, German trenches and French bayonet charges provide exactly the correct explanation for French defeat, one that corresponds with the popular ‘heroes led by donkeys’ thesis, as well as the experience of the next four years of trench warfare.
“That the French plan did not succeed, while the German plan did,” he tells us, summarizing the Ardennes disaster dispassionately and with no dramatic satisfaction at all, “had nothing to do with strategy, but was solely the product of German superiority at the tactical level.”
That tactical superiority – ground-troop coordination, better utilization of improved communication technology to forge increasingly larger units into coherent fighting forces, and if not the mythical German aptitude for warmaking then certainly the noted German willingness toward comprehensive situational thinking – dealt the French an undreamt-of bloody nose right at the opening of the First World War and changed the nature of the whole struggle, or rather, revealed the true face of that struggle. After those tumultuous, doomed bayonet charges, the war would largely settle into different shapes altogether – trenches and bombardments that Napoleon would scarcely have recognized as warfare at all, interspersed with slaughter on scale perhaps only a Napoleon could want to dream. Killing-technology was the thing that brought such warfare into being, and in 1914 the Germans were the first to embrace that fact.
On both the customary levels, Zuber’s book makes for some unpleasant reading: its dispatch-terse and annalistic approach won’t make any reader forget John Keegan or A. J. P. Taylor, and the events he has to relate – the violence, the stupid waste of life – will perhaps prompt the reader to reach for the night’s scotch a bit earlier than usual. But this is a necessary book, an indispensable one, and in its own grim and steadfast way, a perfect one. Certainly no World War I library can respectably be without a copy.