Monday, January 30, 2006
John Keegan, The Face of Battle, explains why soldiers fight better than any book I know. It compares Agincourt, Waterloo and the Somme, which were fought in 1415, 1815, and 1916 very close to each other. Keegan's description of Agincourt is particularly vivid.
Michael Oren, Six Days of War : June 1967 and the Making of the Modern Middle East, is simply riveting. You cannot understand Israel and Palestine today without a good grip on that war, and there is no better way to get it.
Bruce Catton, The Civil War. I actually listened to this on an unabridged audiobook, and thought it was tremendous. Catton is famous for his Civil War books, but this one volume gets you off to an excellent start.
Samuel Eliot Morison, The Two-Ocean War: A Short History of the United States Navy in the Second World War. Want to know what happened on and around all those islands in the Pacific, or at Midway, or against the German submarines in the North Atlantic? And oldie, but a goodie.
Cornelius Ryan, The Longest Day (D-Day) and A Bridge Too Far (Operation Market-Garden, the biggest airborne battle of the war). 'Nuff said.
These aren't necessarily the best, but they are a good place to start.
Let's join the fun. If you read military history, what do you recommend (whether for newbies or veterans)?
Being a history major as an undergrad, I have some understanding at what constitutes good history and bad history. The last book I read was perhaps the best written and most thoroughly researched book I have ever read. Rick Atkinson's An Army at Dawn is a masterpiece of enjoyable reading and detailed research; a combination of popular history and a historian's desire to see the writer's documentation. Atkinson’s citations and bibliography attest to the monumental amount of work that went into writing this book. The book lays out the ineptitude of the US Army prior to WWII, both in tactics, operations, and in commanding a coalition, all framed in Operation Torch (invasion of North Africa). This is the first of Liberation Trilogy. So much of WWII history is popular history that generates terms such as the Greatest Generation. Atkinson’s book looks at everything, from atrocity to triumph, to soldier bitching and the formation of great leaders.
Books I don’t recommend from the list… Primarily Hackworth’s book About Face, at least taken at face value. The reason Hackworth left the Army was due to an investigation of command sponsored (and profiteering from) brothels and drug abuse. He fled justice, a disgraced officer, and moved to Australia. He certainly displayed his personal courage on the battlefield, but that does not make him a great captain. He undermined good order and discipline with his sanctioning of actions contrary to military regulation (there are times and places for that, however). He was a self-aggrandizer of the highest order. He used his book to throw stones at his peers and superiors that he did not like. Compare him to the humble Dick Winters, as accurately portrayed in Band of Brothers, and you can see the difference.
This article in Slate lays it out:
Other books not to read:
The Blitzkrieg Myth : How Hitler and the Allies Misread the Strategic Realities of World War II, by John Moser.
This book is terrible, from a historian’s perspective. It is undocumented, and ignores the best writers of the history and development of German Combined Arms doctrine developed during the interwar period. He attempts to cast himself as a first among authors to figure this out, when in fact he is way overmatched by historians such as COL Robert Doughty (Breakout: Sedan and the Fall of France in 1940), or Karl-Heinz Frieser (Blitzkrieg Legend: The 1940 Campaign in the West 2005 translation). If one really wants to understand why the Germans were so successful initially in WWII, one has to discard the term Blitzkrieg and start from scratch. Doughty’s and Frieser’s books will help you do this.
I could go on for ever.
Did you go to Iowa?
My father was chairman of the history department there until 1983. FWIW. Back in my insolent teenage years I knew most of the department, owing perhaps to the huge cocktail parties that my parents were known to throw.
Christopher Ward, The War of the Revolution. This is the account of the American Revolution I grew up reading (over and over). It has wonderful narrative and solid detail. It remains, in my view, a model of elegant prose.
A couple of books that detail some of the terrible suffering on both sides of the titanic Germany-Russia struggle in WWII.
The 900 Days: The Siege of Leningrad by Harrison Salisbury
The Fall of Berlin 1945 by Antony Beevor
Concur on The Face of Battle. The Agincourt description is both spell-binding and horrific. Another Keegan book worth mentioning (as if there were any that are not) is The History of Warfare, which is very dense and provocative. I find my inner voice arguing with Keegan at times, regarding statements like this one concerning our inability to sustain the Vietnam conflict due to lack of popular support: "Here was evidence of how self-defeating is the effort to run in harness in the same society two mutually contradictory public codes: that of 'inalienable rights', including life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, and that of total self-abnegation when strategic necessity demands it." I'm not sure that analysis holds up in other contexts, WW II and the present Iraq War being but two possible counter examples where these supposed "mutually contradictory public codes" seem (at least for some) to merge and become one. I think I understand the point in the context of the historical observation that war is as much a matter of culture as politics. Ours is not for the most part a culture of war; it is therefore sensitive to forces mitigating for peace, unlike other cultures from the past. Still, I wonder if Keegan might not write differently about "liberty", "self-abnegation" and "strategic necessity" given today's realities.
Also, Barbara Tuchman's The Guns of August is a must read for anyone wanting to understand the mechanics that led to and drove WW I.
Same for Churchill's The Gathering Storm in relation to WW II.
Combined Fleet Decoded by John Prados - Signals intelligence in the Pacific War and not just the breaking of the Japanes codes but how the intercepts were used tactically.
The Art of War by Sun Tzu - Ddespite the conventional wisdom that it is an essential read, it is an essential read.
The Face of the Third Reich by Joachim Fest - I hate to disagree, but The Rise and Fall is a book for laying down and avoiding. It was written too soon. Shirer was a journalist, not an historian and it shows. Fest captures the essential elements of the Third Reich through biographical sketches.
Great Captains Unveiled by B.H. Lidell Hart (father of the Blitzkrieg, a Brit no less) and also his German Generals Talk wherein he debriefs some of his most accomplished followers.
Eye in the Sky: The Story of the Corona Spy Satellites - Sometimes you got to keep trying until it works.
"Barbarossa", by Alan Clarke; a good one volume read on the Eastern Front from WWII. Many insights into the stragegic thinking of the German General Staff.
"The First and the Last", by Adolph Galland. An insight into the Luftwaffe during WWII written by a very decorated pilot who survived.
Went back to A History of Warfare last night and found it, my favorite scholarly sentence of all time: "From Aubrey's hunting thesis, Robin Fox and Lionel Tiger have gone on to propose an explanation of why males provide social leadership."
As the man says, you can't make this stuff up.