(I finally got around to finishing this rather lengthy post.)
Dave Grossman, On Combat: The Psychology and Physiology of Deadly Conflict in War and Peace. Lt. Col. Grossman is an extraordinary thinker and writer. He discusses how in mortal threat situations the body often knows better than the brain what to do to survive. He notes that person-to-person violence is the “universal phobia”, in a literal not metaphorical sense. Virtually all people experience acute phobic-type responses when faced with intentional, personal violence. The unique nature of soldiers and policemen is that they “run toward gunfire” instead of away from it. The book is largely built up out of case-studies from military and police experience with “deadly force encounters”, a/k/a gun-fights. The key elements for survival and victory are (1) training and (2) a realistic appreciation of what will happen to the mind and body before, during and after the fighting. Grossman describes state-of-the art training being employed by the United States military and some of our police forces. He emphasizes the moral element — the person charged by society with the use of deadly force must believe in the rightness of his cause, and the person who is asked by society to face deadly force on its behalf should be given the tools and training and respect he needs to survive and prevail, physically and mentally. There is far more of value in this book than this short paragraph can do justice to. Very highly recommended. Grossman’s earlier books On Killing : The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society and Stop Teaching Our Kids to Kill : A Call to Action Against TV, Movie and Video Game Violence are also very good. (Grossman’s website is here.)
Paddy Griffith, Battle Tactics of the Western Front: The British Army’s Art of Attack 1916-1918. Griffith is a vigorous and opinionated writer. He convincingly takes on the conventional wisdom, demonstrating that the British Army in World War I was not led by a bunch of dolts who sent their men to die in the mud year after year out of bullheadedness and ignorance. To the contrary, the British leadership dealt with the horrendous novelty of World War I reasonably well under the circumstances. It was the circumstances that caused a “reasonable” performance to still mean the loss of hundreds of thousands of men. And, partially contra Griffith, some of what the leadership did can be attributed to bullheadedness, such as pressing on with the Passchendaele battle even when the whole battlefield had been reduced to liquescent mud. Nonetheless, the British leadership were not impervious to the reality they faced. They were constantly trying to innovate, to introduce new weapons and tactics to survive and overcome the stalemate of trench warfare, and their performance improved throughout the war. The British artillery in particular became a fearsome instrument. (Ernst Junger’s book Storm of Steel has barely a page in it where someone isn’t killed by the British artillery.) Griffith notes that in the closing years of the Great War the British showed sharply increasing combat skill, much of the time. In particular, it is often forgotten that the last 100 days the British were attacking all along the line, and the Germans were in retreat. Mobility had returned to the battlefield, and it was the British who had restored it. This achievement is under-appreciated, and if it is not remembered a false lesson of abject futility is taken away from World War I. Griffith attacks what he sees an excessive regard among American military historians, and the American military, for the German achievement in the war, and for the German military more generally. This view is probably best exemplified by the response to Bruce Gudmundsson’s book Stormtroop Tactics : Innovation in the German Army, 1914-1918. Gudmundsson’s book is brilliant, and has been very influential in American military circles. However, if it is read in a vacuum, a false impression is created that only the Germans were responding creatively to the new conditions of trench warfare. Also, as Griffith notes, the Germans gained much of their edge by creating elite formations, which may have been superior to their opponents, but they were unable to raise the army as a whole to this pitch of skill. The follow-on waves of under-trained infantry attacking behind the first wave of elite stosstruppen resembled “crowds going to a football match”, and were on many occasions blown to bits by the British artillery. So, Griffith convincingly teaches us not to over-credit what the Germans managed to do in the war. Eliot Cohen, reviewing another book by Griffith about the Great War, had this to say:
Despite the writings of a few defiant historians outside the mainstream, the popular image of the British Army in World War I is one of soldiers exhibiting great valor sacrificed to the near-criminal stupidity of their high command — “lions led by donkeys,” in a memorable phrase. The current work makes an important contribution to a different view. [Griffith] is a prolific and provocative historian of tactics, a subject disdained by too many students of strategic affairs, and he has … [explored] the ways in which the British army adapted to the challenges of trench warfare. The reader comes away with two unsettling questions. If the British (and presumably other) European armies changed their approaches to war as quickly and well as is suggested, was the slaughter of World War I simply unavoidable? And if historians are only now unraveling the workings of battle in 1914-18, how certain can today’s experts be that they fully understand the workings of modern warfare?
Cohen’s unsettling questions are unsettling because we know the answers, and we do not like the answers. Incidentally, Griffith notes the odd gap in our historiography of the Great War, the absence of a scholarly history, in English, of the French Army in World War I. It now appears we will soon be blessed with one, Pyrrhic Victory : French Strategy and Operations in the Great War by Robert A. Doughty, a very well regarded historian of the French Army, i.e. this and this . Perhaps Doughty will give us a further volume on French tactics at some point.
Joseph Ratzinger, God and the World. I started it in the Fall, before I had any idea he’d be Pope. This is the third in a series of interviews with Cardinal Ratzinger. The fact that he is able to answer with this sort of clarity and modesty when speaking off the cuff is interesting, and shows the depth of his scholarship (and wisdom) and his style of thinking, which is at once traditional and yet aware of the modern world and its challenges. For a person who is supposedly a hard-headed proponent of orthodoxy, he is much more open to discussion and even “thinking out loud” than one might expect. Ratzinger is a man who comes off as sound on dogmatic theology, and moral theology, without being “dogmatic” in any simplistic sort of way. Of course, anyone either within or without the Church who is hoping for some basic change in long-standing theological or moral principles will find little cheer. Finally, Ratzinger seems to be a more practical and dour man than his predecessor. John Paul II was a man of preternatural cheer rooted in a deep personal prayer and an all-embracing sense of the Divine, mystical dimension of life and the world. This led him to make optimistic pronouncements which were cheering to the faithful, but also seemed at odds with the empirical facts. Ratzinger is not of that sort of mind. I expect a more focused and practical and disciplined approach — a more German approach — to the papacy from Ratzinger. I loved John Paul II and I miss him. But Joseph Ratzinger is a tough and brilliant man and I have great hope that he will serve the Church and humanity very well in whatever time he is granted as Pope. I pray for the Pope every day.
Robert Harvey, Cochrane: The Life and Exploits of a Fighting Captain A friend gave me this book. I had never heard of Lord Thomas Cochrane, but he was an extraordinary, swashbuckling figure. Apparently the protagonist of the Patrick O’Brien nautical novels is based on Cochrane. Cochrane was a very successful raider for the British, and he was renowned for succeeding more by ruses than by direct attacks, and getting very few of his own men killed. Not surprisingly, this made him popular with the sailors who served under him, who got a share of the prize money from captured ships and, even better, survived to enjoy it. He was responsible for a successful attack on the French fleet in harbor at Aix Roads in 1809, during the Napoleonic wars, an attack he carried out with little support from his superiors. Cochrane was a gadfly and troublemaker throughout his career, and despite his military successes, he was driven from the Navy. He took over the Navy of Chile, which was fighting for its independence from Spain, and had great success there. He then took over the navy of Brazil, which was fighting for its independence from Portugal, and had a tougher time. Finally, and least satisfactorily, he fought as a naval commander for the Greeks in their independence struggle against the Turks. The story of Cochrane’s ultimate restoration of rank and honors is a happy ending which would be implausible if it were fiction.
Truman Capote, Breakfast at Tiffany’s. I didn’t really like the movie, though it had some good moments. Audrey Hepburn, whose look in the film became iconic, is nonetheless too sweet as Holly Golightly, and as a result the film doesn’t end up making any sense. Seeing the young, handsome George Peppard playing the man Holly calls “Fred”, trying to be dramatic star, and knowing that he ended up as Banacek, then the guy on the A Team, also is a downer if you watch the movie today. And Mickey Rooney’s buck-toothed Japanese guy is so far out of line that even someone like me, who prefers to be un-PC, is horrified. Still, I had read a few a few passages from the book over the years and liked them and got a nagging itch to read it. I am a sucker for the theme of the guy who falls in love with the wrong girl, especially where it is some fouled up femme fatale your brain tells you is a disaster you don’t really want to be part of, but “The heart has its reasons of which reason knows not”. There is an old Buzzcocks song called Ever Fallen in Love (With Someone You Shouldn’t Have Fallen in Love With), which is a favorite of mine, and which captures this idea. Many of us have lived through one of these episodes ourselves. Anyway, Capote has a deft touch and has a well-wrought style, and the story is worth reading if you like that kind of thing. Capote’s Holly is a free spirit, a survivor, an opportunist, not entirely right in the head — and only marginally above being a prostitute. Is it that she has the decency to keep nice, naïve people who develop a crush on her at arms length? Or is she an emotional cripple who cannot deal with the prospect of loving someone? Or is it that she discerns, even if the book is vague about it, that the protagonist (like the author) is a homosexual? If we can’t fall in love with Capote’s Holly Golightly ourselves, we can at least see why “Fred” does, despite everything.
Saul Bellow, Ravelstein. As I mentioned when he died, I had never read any Saul Bellow. Richard Brookhiser had a note about his on NRO that made me decide to Read Ravelstein. Of course, the lead character is Bellow’s riff on his late friend Allan Bloom. It is a good book, with an amusing depiction of the protagonist. It captures a certain part of the Hyde Park atmosphere, a world I was aware of but not part of, of faculty and their families and hangers-on who were rooted in the neighborhood. It is also a depiction of a person who was absolutely devoted to what at the U of C is called “the life of the mind”, an elitist in the strict sense of the word, who believed in an elite of intelligence and devotion to learning. Not a particularly nice person, not someone who extended his friendship to anyone who happened along, but a man devoted to the success of those who had earned his respect and affection. It is an old man’s book, a book about the sadness of seeing the people you knew, the world you knew, fading away around you, and the mystery of death, a force so mighty that it can consume even so amazing and unique a figure as “Ravelstein”. Worth reading.
Henry James, The Princess Casamassima (Full text online here.). I liked this book, but I see that all the critics seem to hate it. It did take me more than a year of picking at it on and off. I picked it up because Walter Laqueur referred to it in one of his books about terrorism. Written in 1886, it suggests that there is a pan-European anarchist underground, which the protagonist gets mixed up with. It is interesting in its depiction of liberal guilt among the wealthy, who support a political movement that would lead to their own extinction. The prose is wonderful, as is the depiction of the subtleties of the characters’ personalities, if you have the taste for that sort of thing. All in all, it was worth reading and it passed the most important test for a novel: I finished it with regret. I had previously read and liked Portrait of a Lady, which is a superior novel. As much as I liked it, I would have to say do not start with Princess as an introduction to James. Incidentally, I have a theory about the omniscient narrator in James’ books being a malign demiurge, but I will save that for another day, or maybe never.
John Scalzi, Old Man’s War. This was touted as a successor of sorts to Robert A. Heinlein’s Starship Troopers and Joe Haldeman’s The Forever War. I grew up with Heinlein, and Starship Troopers was a huge influence on me. It was the first science fiction novel I ever read, and probably is still the one I like best. Haldeman’s book was a Vietnam era re-visit to some of Heinlein’s WWII-era themes, done as a parody, but still well done. Scalzi consciously echoes some of the themes of both ST and FW. He writes in a vivid, funny and page-turning fashion. I finished the book in about 24 hours and stayed up most of one night to finish it. I won’t do any spoilers. The combat passages are exciting. One scene where the protagonist is in a crash that nearly kills him is done brilliantly. The book is well-positioned at the end for at least one sequel, probably more. If anything, the military technology depicted in the book is probably too conservative. By the time we have actually got interstellar travel, we will be way, way beyond what is in the book, much of which we are probably close to having now. Scalzi’s depiction of the universe as a “fucked up place” where apparently benign aliens are incredibly dangerous and hostile, and where the humans are outnumbered and beset by powerful and inscrutable enemy races, seems to echo some of the American mood in the early years of the War on Terror. (I don’t decry this. It is better than a deluded belief in a non-existent benignity amongst our global neighbors.) Scalzi is unabashed that in such a situation, you must fight for your survival and do so without apology. That too, I think, reflects the contemporary mood, at least in America.
David Gress, From Plato to NATO. Gress sets out to do two things. First, to demolish what he believes was the canonical version of Western Civilization, “Western Civ” as it was taught in American schools particularly in the decades immediately following World War II. Second, however, rather than substituting any kind of Leftist narrative, he wants to recapture a more accurate picture of Western Civilization. He succeeds in doing so. Gress rejects and rebuts what he calls the Grand Narrative, of a continuous legacy from Greece, to Rome, skipping mostly over Christendom, which is presented mainly as a “Dark Age”, to a putative rebirth of freedom in the Renaissance and Reformation, reaching new heights through the Enlightenment and crowned by that glorious fulfillment which is modern liberalism. This Grand Narrative departs in important ways from the facts. Gress notes that there was a “Western” civilization that had formed by 1000 AD which he calls the Old West, which was composed of the three elements: (1) the idea of freedom derived from the Germanic tribes, which called for lawful dealings and notions of reciprocal rights of, at minimum, consultation between rulers and their free subjects, (2) Christianity, which provided a moral and intellectual framework and cultural unity, and (3) the vestiges of an idea derived from Roman rule, of an Imperial order binding all of Christendom, imposing some degree of comity among the peoples of the West, though this was more aspirational than substantive. Gress contrasts this older order or Old West with the New West of modernity, characterized by the trinity of “science, democracy and capitalism”. The self-understanding of the West has been divided since the Enlightenment. One group of thinkers Gress calls the “radical Enlightenment”, e.g. Voltaire, Rousseau and the French philosophes and later the leaders of the French Revolution. This group posited a radical opposition between modernity and the Old West, particularly Christianity. They saw “Liberty” as an ideal and an abstraction. Gress contrasts this group with what he calls the “skeptical Enlightenment”, e.g. Hume, Locke and Montesquieu. These men saw political freedom and economic prosperity as rooted in the past, in the specific “liberties” embedded in law and custom and inherited from the past. Gress traces the conflict between these two schools of thought, down to the present. Gress’s discussion of the pathology of liberalism confronted with communism, and its suicidal inablitiy to articulate a defense for itself, is noteworthy. To thinkers descended from the “radical enlightenment” school, Soviet Russia was the heir to the historical legitimacy of the French Revolution, and whatever its defects it was fundamentally progressive. To these thinkers the United States, with its continued robust Christianity and its adherence to notions of personal freedom embodied in trade and commerce, was a throwback, regressive, an embodiment of what they were against. This discussion by Gress obviously has echoes in the response of European elites to the United States today. The loss of the Soviet Union as a going concern has been a blow to the Left, which has been casting about ever since, looking for a source of inspiration. This in part explains the ambiguous responses to Arab Islamic terrorism — which they cannot ardently support, but whose goal of destroying the American-sponsored commercial world order, a/k/a globalization, is very attractive to them. Gress’s book has many capsule discussions of major thinkers which are very well done, and I learned a lot from these passages. I am doing poor justice to this dense and learned book in this short paragraph. I highly recommend it. I will note as an aside that Gress’s view of the “Old West” roots of Western freedom is fully consistent with the discussion of English and Anglospheric exceptionalism which I discussed in this post. If you are interested in Gress’s book, there is a very good review-essay here, by John O’Sullivan, which provides much additional detail.
Edward E.”Doc” Smith, Galactic Patrol. Doc Smith’s epic of conflict on a galactic scale. He wrote his Lensman series as a series of four books beginning with this one. He went back and retrofitted his earlier book Triplanetary onto the series and wrote a bridging novel called First Lensman. But the series as it appeared in magazine serialization started with this one. I read it aloud to my ten year old son. I had read it when I was twelve or so. He found it a little tough going, so when I read it I’d explain the “science” as we went along. It was as good as I remembered it being. We follow the adventures of Kimball Kinnison, who has just graduated from the Galactic Patrol’s incredibly rigorous academy. He is equipped with his “lens”, which is provided by the Arisians, an ancient and mysterious race which has seen fit to aid galactic civilization in its struggles. The lens is worn on the wrist and permits telepathic communication, as well as possessing other as yet unknown powers. Lensman Kinnison is immediately committed to battle against pirates who are raiding the space commerce of galactic civilization. As Kinnison gets deeper into the war, infiltrating the pirates, it becomes clear that the pirates are not merely a criminal gang but the armed force of a vast and malign counter-civilization called Boskone. The tides of this conflict go back and forth, culminating in the final confrontation between Lensman Kinnison and Helmuth, “he who speaks for Boskone” in the heart of Helmuth’s vast Grand Base … . But, as Kinnison closes in for the kill, what is the significance of that glowing orb of force near Helmuth’s desk at the center of the base? We will need to read the next book, Gray Lensman, to find out.
I finished thefollowing books so far during 3Q, all of which are good. I will write about them later.
· Frank Kitson, Bunch of Five
· Michael Deaver, A Different Drummer My Thirty Years with Reagan
· Ernst Junger, Storm of Steel, the new Hofman translation
· Joel Kotkin, The City: A Global History
I am currently reading:
· Joel Garreau, Radical Evolution, The Promise and Peril of Enhancing Our Minds, Our Bodies — and What It Means to Be Human
· Dick Lehr and Gerard O’Neill, Black Mass: The Irish Mob, the FBI, and a Devil’s Deal.
· James Stenson, Father, The Family Protector
· Thomas Sowell, Black Rednecks, White Liberals
· Eddie Rickenbacker, Fighting the Flying Circus
· N.A.M. Rodger, The Command of the Ocean
· Cynthia V. Wedgewood, William the Silent
· Edward E.”Doc” Smith, Gray Lensman
· Gavin De Becker, The Gift of Fear: Survival Signals That Protect Us From Violence
My list of books read first quarter of 2005 is here