Friday, March 18, 2011

Military History Books: Abbreviated Reviews

H and I both have strong interests in history, including military history, although I would have to say that my interest in things military outweigh H's by far.  I am not complaining though.  H is always excited to spend her vacations on battlefields and listen intently to my ramblings about unit such-and-such or general so-and-so, ask smart questions, and read the books I recommend.  Obviously, I am a lucky guy. 

And speaking of military history books, I am often asked about my opinions on books to read, from folks who have little to no background in military issues to those with deep understandings.  Here are a few of the books I like to recommend.  They are not too "heavy," and I include several novels I think provide good and accurate depictions of warfare through the ages. I would not want to run the risk of boring any readers of the blog to tears (the more technical/academic studies certainly bore me!), so most of these are not difficult reads and can even be placed in the "popular" history category.  You'll also notice a significant slant towards American history, which reflects my academic background.

The Killer Angels. (Michael Shaara).  Pulitzer Prize-winning classic novel about the 1863 Battle of Gettysburg, thought by many to be the turning point of the American Civil War.  I disagree that any single battle was THE turning point, but that's neither here nor there.  It is a fantastic read, with dramatic writing that brings the battle and many historical characters to life.  Shaara puts the reader inside the head of some of the major players of these three bloody days (casualties exceeded 50,000), including Generals Robert E. Lee, James Longstreet, George Pickett, and John Buford, as well as Colonel Joshua Chamberlain, who in my view (and this is coming from a Southerner), may have been the most fascinating individual of the entire war.  The book is required reading for US Army officers (I was one once) and was the basis for the 1993 movie Gettysburg.  I do not recommend the follow-on novels written by Mr. Shaara's son, despite their popularity.

The Face of Battle.  John Keegan.  Classic study by a renowned British historian on the "ground truth" of three famous battles:  Agincourt (1415), Waterloo (1815), and the Somme (1916).  What was it like to be a French knight facing a shower of English arrows during the Hundred Year's War (1337-1453)?  How about an English infantryman standing firm against a massed charge by Napoleon's cavalry at Waterloo?  Prefer your warfare to be more modern and industrial?  Then join the British army as it goes "over the top" to be slaughtered by German machine guns at the Somme, where the British suffered nearly 60,000 casualties in one day.  Keegan, who is one of my favorite authors (although his most recent string of books have been a bit disappointing), also has done a similar and highly recommended work on naval warfare (Battle at Sea), which focuses on three key naval battles, Trafalgar (1805), Jutland (1916), and Midway (1942). 

All Quiet on the Western Front.  Erich Maria Remarque.  The classic 1928 novel told from the perspective of a young, idealistic German infantryman serving in the First World War.  Not much else I can say about this book that has not already been said many times before.  It is one of the finest war novels ever written.  Powerful, bitter, brilliant, warm, stark, dark, horrifying, and banned by Nazi Germany.  Says Remarque at the beginning of his story:  "This book is to be neither an accusation nor a confession, and least of all an adventure, for death is not an adventure to those who stand face to face with it. It will try simply to tell of a generation of men who, even though they may have escaped shells, were destroyed by the war."  Try listening to it and not feel the power of his words.

We Were Soldiers Once...and Young.  Harold (Hal) Moore and Joseph (Joe) Galloway.  Experience infantry combat in Vietnam and learn about "airmobile" (helicopter-borne) operations and tactical (small unit) leadership.   The US 7th Cavalry Regiment of the 1st Cavalry Division (Airmobile) meets the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) in the Ia Drang Valley, 1965.  It was the first major action between the US Army and the NVA, as well as the first large-scale airmobile operation in warfare.  Hal Moore was a 7th Cavalry battalion commander during the battle and his unit successfully defended Landing Zone ("LZ") X-Ray against heavy odds. Joe Galloway was there as a combat correspondent.  Their account is a riveting blow-by-blow, "you are there" depiction of the battle.  Mel Gibson's well-done (but not entirely accurate) 2002 movie of the same name focused on Hal Moore's fight, but does not mention that a sister battalion of the 7th Cavalry was nearly wiped out in a huge ambush at LZ Albany just a few kilometers away.  There has been an explosion of books in recent years on recent small but pivotal battles, written in a similar fast-paced style.  So, if you like Moore's book,  consider Mark Bowden's Black Hawk Down (US Rangers and Special Forces in Mogadishu in 1993), S.L.A. Marshall's Pork Chop Hill (depiction of one of the hill battles in Korea, 1953), and David Zuchinno's Thunder Run:  The Armored Strike to Capture Baghdad (excellent account of modern tank and mechanized combat in an urban environment).

Gates of Fire (Steven Pressfield).  Historical novel about the Battle of Thermopylae (480 BC) told through the eyes of a Spartan Helot (slave).  Some 300 Spartans and 700 Thespians under Spartan King Leonidas hold the pass at Thermopylae (also called the "Hot Gates") against the Persian hordes under Xerxes , whom historians over the ages have credited with anywhere from 100,000 to 2 million soldiers.  Thermopylae is probably the most famous "last stand" battle in history.  The Spartans died to a man defending the pass in a delaying action while the Greeks (largely the Athenians and Spartans) prepared their defenses.  Pressfield's account is a novel, yes, but highly detailed and reasonably accurate depiction of the battle with particularly well-done descriptions of combat.  If you can get through the first 100 pages, you will not regret reading it.

Short History of World War One; Short History of World War Two; Short History of the Korean War; Short History of Air Power; Short History of the  Civil War.  James Stokesbury.  I was introduced to Professor Stokesbury's books many years ago in college and was immediately impressed.  No, not because my attention span then was that of a 19-year-old, but because he made military history informative, interesting, fun to read, and best of all (for most students), brief.  Each of these books can be finished in a couple of days, and I promise they will not put you to sleep.

Battle Cry of Freedom.  James M. McPherson.  Probably the single best volume on the American Civil War out there.  I was first introduced to it in graduate school.  Exhaustively researched and smoothly written, McPherson integrates political and military events with important social and economic developments.  At nearly 900 pages, it is not a weekend read, but perhaps a worthy summer project if you're looking for one book on our, "War Between the States" as Southerners like to call it.

Embrace an Angry Wind.  Wiley Sword.  The most recent edition of this book is called "The Confederacy's Last Hurrah."  Whatever.  I have a lot of Civil War books, and if, after reading McPherson's account, you find yourself interested in looking at just one campaign in some detail, I think this one is probably the best.  It covers the last, ill-fated campaign of the Confederacy's Army of Tennessee from both the Confederate and Union perspectives. Sword's book reads almost like a novel, covering the details of the campaign without getting too tactical or jargon-filled.  He also depicts many colorful characters in flowing prose, including a physically crippled and drug-influenced army commander, an opposing politically-motivated army leader, a love-struck and ultimately doomed division commander, an insubordinate brigade commander who saves an army, and a man who may have been the best commander in the war on either side (and no, his name is not Grant, Lee, or Sherman).  You'll also read in horror as the Confederate army dashes itself to pieces at the Battle of Franklin, Tennessee, suffering over 7,000 casualties in three hours fighting.  Later, at Nashville, it will be destroyed.  Highly recommended.

Son of the Morning Star:  Custer and the Little Big Horn.  Evan S. Connell.  One cannot read about American history and ignore our westward expansion and the resulting clash with the indigenous population, particularly the Plains Wars.  While Custer is probably one of the most famous--and controversial-- American military leaders, I am not a fan of him or his generalship, nor was I ever fascinated with his life.  However, the war with the Northern Plains Indians in the 1860s-1870s was a seminal event in America's westward expansion and say what you will about Custer, he figured prominently during the period.  There are many books covering him and the conflicts, but this is one of the best of the lot.  It blends military history, Plains Indians culture, and character study in its tale of Custer's fateful day along the Little Big Horn River in June of 1876, when he and over 250 of his men were killed by thousands of Lakota Sioux, Arapaho, and Cheyenne warriors.  Connell has an interesting and sometimes difficult to follow writing style; he meanders, dives feet first into tangents and sidebars, and generally ignores chronological order. Still, it is an effective, superbly researched, and well-balanced story that draws you in and never lets go.  It inspired me many years ago to drive far out of my way to visit the Little Bighorn Battlefield located somewhere in nowhere, Montana.  The book was also a best-seller and turned into a made-for-TV movie.

An Army at Dawn and The Day of Battle.  Rick Atkinson.  Don't let the size of these books deter you.   They are critically acclaimed, well-written, and superbly researched histories of the US Army in North Africa, Sicily, and Italy and the first two volumes of a trilogy on the history of the US Army in the World War II European Theater of Operations (ETO).  Atkinson focuses on the human drama of the US Army at war, effortlessly moving from the senior most levels of the military to the men with the guns and tanks on the "pointy end of the spear" as my military friends like to say.   He brings characters and battles to life, and does not flinch from exposing both the good and the bad of our military's performance.  You will read of both stupid and brilliant decision-making, bureaucratic bloat, arrogant commanders, incredibly brave individual actions, bloody battles, and the troubles of fighting a coalition war.  You may even come away with a lesser opinion of some famous American commanders, such as George Patton and Mark Clark.

With the Old Breed:  At Peleliu and Okinawa.  E.B. (Eugene) Sledge.  Probably one of the most powerful personal American memoirs of combat ever written. Sledge was a marine fighting with the 1st Marine Division during the Pacific campaign of World War II.  He participated in two of the bloodiest island battles in Marine history.  At Peleliu, his first action, the 1st Marine Division suffered over 50 percent casualties;  Sledge's 235-man company was chewed down to 85 by the time his unit left the island. The island was supposed to be taken in three or four days, but fighting went on for months.  The fighting itself was brutal and took place in unbearable conditions, including extreme heat and against a foe that had to be rooted out from every hole and cave.  His experience on Okinawa was almost as bad.  He tells his story in simple, yet searing and powerful prose.  It is compassionate, honest, and does not mince words.  In the process, he covers the details of life on the line, the loss of friends, the filth of the battlefield, the men he fought with, and the experience of combat.  His description of an assault across the airfield at Peleliu is unforgettable ("the shells screeched and whistled, exploding all around us....we were exposed, running on our own power through a veritable shower of deadly metal and the constant crash of explosions...the ground seemed to sway back and forth under the concussions.")  His depiction of being under shell fire on Okinawa is similarly written:  "Each shell fluttered and swished down and went off with a flash and an ear-splitting crash.  Shrapnel growled through the air, and several men were wounded badly.  Each shell threw stinking mud around when it exploded.  The wounded were moved down behind the ridge with great difficulty because of the slippery, muddy slopes.  A corpsman gave them aid, and they were carried to the rear--shocked, torn, and bleeding."  Sledge's account is not be missed.   We would also recommend the HBO depiction of Sledge's experiences on Peleilu and Okinawa in The Pacific miniseries.   

There are more books I want to do a short review of, but I think this is perhaps enough for one entry.  Stay tuned for additional reviews.

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