To generalize about war is like generalizing about peace. Almost everything is true. Almost nothing is true. Though it’s odd, you’re never more alive than when you’re almost dead. You recognize what’s valuable. Freshly, as if for the first time, you love what’s best in yourself and in the world, all that might be lost. At the hour of dusk you sit at your foxhole and look out on a wide river turning pinkish red, and at the mountains beyond, and although in the morning you must cross the river and go into the mountains and do terrible things and maybe die, even so, you find yourself studying the fine colors on the river, you feel wonder and awe at the setting of the sun, and you are filled with a hard, aching love for how the world could be and always should be, but now is not.
- Tim O’Brien, The Things They Carried
Earlier this year, up-and-coming military writer and think-tank-er (if that’s a term) Max Boot published a pretty incredible piece of writing. Invisible Wars: An Epic History of Guerrilla Warfare from Ancient Times to the Present is one of the best, most thoughtful books on military history for a general readership to come along in some time. (Even if calling itself “epic” in the subtitle seems a touch hubristic, though correct.)
Don’t let its length and breadth of scope throw you, this is as readable as any magazine essay, and definitely worth your time. My review is available at PopMatters:
In this grand survey of what one could term irregular warfare, spanning from the Jewish revolt against the Romans in 66 AD and earlier to the present day, Boot shows that a good reading of the historical record leaves little room for old stereotypes. He has no truck with the romantic heavy-breathing that writers of his ilk can slip into when talking about generals and battles. He also doesn’t waste time in this book repeating the old army-groupie saw about how some particular war might have been won if only the media/politicians/concerned civilians had just gotten out of the way and let the guys with guns take care of the problem…
You can read an excerpt from the book here.
The military has ever been one of the structural supports of much American science fiction. Whether they’re heroically battling off alien invaders or corrupting scientific research for their nefarious and war-mongering needs, the boys in green have a long history in the genre.
That’s why it’s particularly interesting whenever you run across a science-fiction writer who actually served in the military and then brought that sensibility to their writing. The responses can vary widely, from the jingoistic Reagan-era militarism of Jerry Pournelle to the ironic action of David Drake to the highly satiric and jaundiced Kurt Vonnegut.
Over at i09, Charlie Jane Anders does a superb job of studying all of the ways these authors brought their experience of war to bear in their fiction, as well as other fantasy and sci-fi authors who were less vocal about their military service (from Tolkien to Clarke).
Between the various Navy SEAL books and films flooding the market, Mark Bowden’s riveting The Finish, and the all the video games crafted around Special Ops strike teams, you’d think commando fatigue would be setting in. Hopefully that won’t be the case once Zero Dark Thirty hits theaters:
Zero Dark Thirty (military jargon for a half-hour after midnight) is an epic take on the Central Intelligence Agency’s hunt for the 9/11 mastermind. Working on a dusty Afghanistan forward operating base, Maya (Jessica Chastain) then shifts to analyzing the intelligence from the American embassy in Islamabad… As the casualties mount and the years tick by, the shell-shocked Maya’s worldview narrows down to a millimeter-wide slit that recognizes only her quarry. The film recounts the agonizingly particular step-by-step analysis of baffling and contradictory information. It just as convincingly relays the sickening sense of urgency in the hunt, a fear that after all the bombings and rhetoric and fear and war, their quarry may simply get away. “We are failing… Bring me people to kill,” seethes Maya’s CIA superior…
Zero Dark Thirty opens in limited release on Wednesday, expanding wider over the several weeks to follow. It’s already been racking up awards from critics’ groups and attracting controversy over its depiction of CIA torture of prisoners; watch for it when the Oscars are announced.
My full review is at Film Journal International.
You can see the trailer here:
Filmmakers run all kinds of risks when they try to update the classics; for all the universality of some of the great dramas, they can fail miserably when downloaded into new and sometimes incompatible formats (witness what happens when studios try to dress up Austen and Shakespeare as candy-colored high school comedies). Nadine Labaki’s zesty Where Do We Go Now? has to navigate two minefields: updating Aristophanes’s Lysistrata and setting this comedy amidst modern Lebanon’s murderous religious strife. The result isn’t a new classic, but stands nevertheless as a potent and lively satire about how the violence of men tears societies down and the lengths to which women go to staunch the bleeding…
The Oscar-nominated Where Do We Go Now? comes out today on DVD. My full review is at AMC Movie Database.
Another passing of a literary great was reported Friday. In short, John Keegan was the preeminent military historian of the modern era.
A believer in writing for the popular audience, Keegan bore some comparison to Niall Ferguson, particularly in staking out contentious theories, such as his support for the Iraq and Vietnam wars (thinking both were the least bad option) and his dismissal of the classic Clausewitzian definition of war as “politics by other means.” He was also a consummate gentleman to any who were lucky enough to hear him read.
Starting with his 1976 classic, The Face of Battle, Keegan helped turn the discipline from one that cared only about mass troop movements and the decisions of great generals to one that embraced a more holistic view of conflict, in particular how it affected the individual soldiers on the ground.
In this typically vivid scene from The Face of Battle, which studied the day-to-day experiences of British soldiers in three battles: Agincourt, Waterloo, and the Somme, Keegan wrote about an officer who fell asleep the minute the march was halted:
…[he] did not think of food until later in the night, when he woke to eat some chops cooked in the breastplate of a dead cuirassier (meat fried in a breastplate was very much à la mode in the Waterloo campaign, rather as rats spitted on a bayonet were to be in 1871 or champagne exhumed from chateau gardens in 1914).