So many books to read, so little time.

Archive for October 2008

The rich imagination of Paradise Lost

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For some time now Paradise Lost has been resting comfortably in my “anti-library”. John Milton’s epic of the Fall of Man is one of the great poems of the English language; but I got bogged down in chapter VIII, where Adam blathers on in the Garden of Eden. Recently I gritted my teeth and returned to the poem. I’m halfway through chapter X and closing in on the end.

One of the problems with Paradise Lost is that it’s long and long-winded. Another is that while Milton’s tale – about how Satan rebelled against God, was banished to hell, then sought revenge – is gripping, many elements of the story are preposterous to the modern eye. Like that in chapter X, where Sin – Satan’s daughter – and Death – Sin’s son and Satan’s son and grandson (yeah, that’s right – Satan begat Death by Sin) build a giant causeway from Hell to Earth across Chaos.

That said, Milton had a terrific turn of phrase. He gives the best lines to Satan and his lieutenants, as when Mammon declares his preference for “hard liberty before the easy yoke of servile pomp”. And Milton’s descriptions of Hell and Chaos – “a dark, Illimitable Ocean without bound” – are sublime.

“Into this wild abyss the wary Fiend, Stood on the brink of Hell and looked a while, Pondering his voyage; for no narrow frith, He had to cross.”

It’s this rich imagination which makes Paradise Lost an essential read.

Cross-posted at Kotare.

Written by kotare1718

October 29, 2008 at 9:24 am

Posted in fiction

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Tory Historian on Evelyn Waugh

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My friend Tory Historian has a great post about Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited. A very nice discussion of one of my favorite books. She focuses on the character of Anthony Blanche, and his warning to the protagonist, Charles Ryder, about the corrupting power of English charm, especially as it is embodied in the Flyte family. She takes these thread from the novel, and weaves a discussion of the television program made from the book. I have actually never seen the TV show, which various of my friends have liked.

(I previously had this (about Waugh’s definition of conservatism) and this (about somebody misreading and misunderstanding Waugh) on ChicagoBoyz.)

Are there any other Waugh devotees around here?

Written by lexingtongreen

October 28, 2008 at 4:28 am

Posted in Uncategorized


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Dr. Frank had a funny post about the recent movie “Troy.” Even for the unintentionally funny parts, I wouldn’t give a nickel for anything with Brad Pitt in it. I started to write a comment, but it turned into a rant. I decided I’d post it on the blog instead. One guy in the comments mentioned Jason and the Argonauts. Ray Harryhausen. The BEST. Now THAT is ancient Greece, man. The Gods stride amongst the mortals. Giant beings shake the Earth. Dynamite babes frolic about in togas. Heroes slay monsters. It remains to this day an utter masterpiece. I showed it to my kids a few years ago. One kid was so scared by the winged harpies she had an “accident” right there in my sister’s living room. The skeletons coming out of the ground. Oh man.

Another guy suggested that Mel Gibson should make the movie in literal, word-for-word ancient Greek. Funny, maybe, but … .

That could be the TRUE and perfect Iliad movie. Yes. I can see it, almost. A 60 hour long, all ancient-Greek version directed by Mel Gibson would DOMINATE. Grunts, shrieks, running men, sweat, blood, dirt. Fleeting glimpses of spears being flung or thrust, of huge stones whistling down and splintering skulls, of limbs crunching under chariot wheels. Disembowellments, lower jaws hewn off, spears piercing thighs, bladders, lungs, eye sockets — each and every one of the harsh clinical, medical details of Homeric butchery. And the resonant Greek (with subtitles) of a voice-over of all of Homer’s incredible capsule biographies of one doomed warrior after another as he steps up for his moment of truth, only to be immediately felled into the dust by Ajax, or Hector or one of the other Heroes. Only an instant before a son, a husband, a father, a proud, strong man in the flower of youth, and now only food for the birds of the air and the wild dogs which prowl the edges of the battlefield. Death is never anonymous in Homer. Each one is personal. Each one has a story and a name. Each one hurts.

Strictly speaking the movie would be unwatchable. And not only because it would be a pitiless, unremitting cacaphony of screaming, bloody horror. The movie would also be way too long to watch even in a marathon session. We’d have to watch it in three hour segments over several months.

It would be the film equivalent of the Iggy & the Stooges Complete Funhouse Sessions — way, way too much for anyone entirely sane to want to listen to, but far, far too good to not eventually listen to it all.

All we need is someone with Mel Gibson’s money and contacts to take leave of his senses, and in an act of abject commercial lunacy embark on this cinematic dream quest for the perfect movie version of the ur-document of Western civilization. It will always remain only a theoretical possibility, I fear.

But I’d buy the DVD set for sure.

(Originally posted on ChicagoBoyz.)

Written by lexingtongreen

October 26, 2008 at 6:07 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

Generation Kill

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Evan Wright is a lunatic. Not by the traditional definition; one that is in exactly zero command of his own mind, rather in the same sense that a Dodge Viper is “bad,” Bert Blyleven’s curveball was “filthy.” Evan Wright is a lunatic who embedded himself with the Marines First Recon and willfully experienced the American invasion of Iraq at the “tippity-tip of the spear.” Wright’s experiences were captured in a multi-part report for Rolling Stone and then later expanded to become a book.

Published in 2004, Generation Kill is an account of Wrights experience riding, eating, sleeping and generally experiencing the twenty three Marines of First Recon as they rocket forth from Kuwait to Baqubah.

Wrights prose is not eloquent, not learned and not melodramatic. It’s cadence is fast, it’s descriptive qualities clipped and macroscopic references beyond the microscopic details are sparse. Wright posits little description of the strategy of the operation (though he does allow occasional peeks at it) rather restricts his reflections to the microcosm of men at arms executing (complaining) on the behalf of the military upper echelon.

In this sense Wright falls a bit short of another lunatic, Robert Kaplan, in presenting a multidimensional study of the conflict within which he embeds himself. If your looking for an in depth analysis of a conflict that includes hairy, personal, real time reflection, Generation Kill is not your book.

However, Wright’s personal account of the confusion, violence, comedy, boredom and general anarchy that entails war or more specifically, America’s invasion of Iraq is as gritty and “there” as one can expect. Wright’s work includes descriptive accounts of friendly fire, civilian casualties, brutal and abject civilian murder and highlights the disconnect between upper echelon strategy and “boots on the ground” tactics.  Additionally it highlight’s a particularly fascinating psychological transformation as the platoon’s attitude toward combat evolves from initial excitement (“get some!”) to extreme fatigue (what the fuck are we doing here?) to a semblance of normality (a debate between Sgt. Colbert and  Cpl. Person regarding country music is interrupted by a violent fire fight only to be rejoined as though nothing happened after the threat had passed.)

My cohort Kotare lamented the nonexistence of a “first person shooter” reflection of a conflict. Generation Kill might not be exactly what he seeks but it’s very likely a close bet.

In closing, Generation Kill reads like a work of fiction (hence it’s easy translation into an HBO series) but packs a mighty account of actual ground level warfare and a healthy dose of the personal reality of America’s invasion of Iraq.

Generation Kill, written by a lunatic, is good stuff.

Written by subadei

October 25, 2008 at 12:46 am

Posted in Nonfiction

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Books That Should Exist, But Don’t: The South African Military

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Millions and millions of books. Even in the history field, thousands and thousands. Usually monographs on pretty narrow topics. But amidst all that, despite the numbers, you sometimes find that a book you want just does not exist.

Books which should exist, but don’t, deserve a special place in the antilibrarium. I offer one example here.

I got thinking about South Africa recently, due to a perusal of Ralph Peters’ remarkable essay The Lion and the Snake. And it occurred to me that I knew less about the South African military than I’d like. It is a remote corner of the Anglosphere which I’d like to know more about, and being me, I wanted to start from the military angle. I went looking for something like Granatstein’s history of the Canadian Army, Canada’s Army: Waging War and Keeping the Peace , or this collection of essays on the military history of Ireland. I found remarkably little. There are unit histories, and a series of official (or semi-official) histories of South Africa in the Second World War, and some books about the South African Army from the 1980s, and a few other odds and ends, such as this short essay, and this interesting list of books (click on “literature”). So there is a fair amount of material out there, but nothing comprehensive. I want someone else to do the research, the heavy lifting, and put the whole thing together for me, with a nice annotated bibliography.

Despite substantial searching, I am forced to conclude with regret that there is no one volume history of the South African armed forces, or military history of South Africa. I think we are too close to the transition from the apartheid regime to the successor regime. Old wounds are still open.

Still, too bad. It would be a very fascinating story, told as a continuous narrative. Lots of military, political, cultural and racial drama. The Dutch settlement, the British capture of the Cape, the Zulu Wars, the Boer War, South African expeditionary forces in both world wars, the Cold War era struggles against guerillas in adjacent countries, The military’s involvement in sustaining the apartheid regime, the clandestine nuclear program, the current ambiguous situation, including the virtual privatization of important segments of the South African Army into mercenary bands for hire, and some predictions and guesses about what the future might hold. What a tale. Even if it covered only the 20th century, starting with independence, after the Boer War, it is a story which would certainly have a lot of interest and lessons. It belongs in one volume. I hope someone writes it.

I close by opening the floor to our readers: Do you have any book recommendations about South Africa, Rhodesia/Zimbabwe, etc., not necessarily limited to the military angle.

More generally, it would be good to hear about other books that should exist but don’t. I can think of a bunch of them, but that will be for another day.

(Originally posted on ChicagoBoyz.)

Wow. I don’t think this Wikipedia article existed when I first wrote this post. Good to see it. Still, a book would be better … .

Written by lexingtongreen

October 24, 2008 at 2:48 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

A “first person shooter” approach to military history?

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Yesterday I advanced the idea of new form of military history – of following a battle or campaign through the eyes of an individual or a group of men as events unfolded, rather than studying it from an omnipotent vantage point. I want to expand on that idea. It’s what I call the “first person shooter” approach to the writing of military history.

The problem with most books on military history – whether written from the perspective of generals or privates – is that we (the readers) know the outcome in advance, even if we don’t know the detail of how the outcome came about. If we pick up Adam Zamoyski’s 1812, for instance, most of us know when we start reading that Napoleon and his army suffered a calamitous defeat in Russia. We read the book to understand how that defeat came about.

But what if we could follow a battle, a campaign, a war, as a participant actually lived it? Without knowing in advance what the outcome would be, without knowing what lay beyond the next hill, without knowing what the next 24 hours might hold, without knowing where the enemy was and what he was planning? That would be gripping – more like reading a novel or playing a first person shooter game than the traditional approach to military history.

Clausewitz wrote that war is the province of danger and uncertainty. With its omnipotent vantage point, military history strips away those elements. The ‘first person shooter’ approach might give us a greater appreciation of the dilemmas that commanders encounter in battle – having to make quick decisions of great consequence in a climate of danger, uncertainty, surprise, fluidity, fear, unreliable intelligence and conflicting information.

Cross-posted at Kotare: The Strategist.

Written by kotare1718

October 22, 2008 at 9:01 am

Posted in Nonfiction

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The history of ‘warriors for the working-day’

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As a teenager I cut my teeth reading military history. John Keegan’s The Face of Battle (1976) came as a revelation. Keegan wrote of three great battles (Agincourt, Waterloo and the Somme) at the level of ordinary soldiers – Shakespeare’s ‘warriors for the working-day’ – rather than that of generals and staff officers, as had been the case. 

“I do not intend to write about generals or generalship….I do not intend to say anything of logistics or strategy and very little of tactics in the formal sense.”

More recently the pendulum has swung back, with historians writing very good books that balance the perspective of the ‘poor bloody infantry’ with the operational, strategic and political levels of war. Casting an eye across my book shelves (not my anti-library, I hasten to add), I spotted Adam Zamoyski’s 1812 and Antony Beevor’s Stalingrad, both of which exemplify this approach to military approach.

A few days ago I was dipping into Carl von Clausewitz’s On War and came across an interesting discussion about approaches to the study of military history (chapter 5, Book 2). Clausewitz considered whether military history (and by this he meant the actions of the great generals) should be studied from an omnipotent vantage point (the eye in the sky perspective that the gods enjoy in The Iliad). Or whether it should be studied “as nearly as possible” from the point of view of the general, watching the battle unfold through his eyes – with all the noise, confusion, uncertainty and danger that entailed. 

When you think about it, most military history is written as though we are Olympian gods. Beevor’s Stalingrad, for example, takes you from front line combat to the Russian and German formation headquarters and on to the war councils of Hitler and Stalin. This makes for great comprehensive coverage. But it strikes me that a variation on Clausewitz’s idea (and Keegan’s approach), of following a battle or campaign through the eyes of an individual or a group of men – ‘warriors for the working-day’ – would be something fascinating and different. 

This has been done in fiction, war memoirs, such as Guy Sajer’s The Forgotten Soldier, and film (‘Band of Brothers’ springs to mind). But I haven’t come across any military histories like this. Have you?

Cross-posted at Kotare: The Strategist

Written by kotare1718

October 21, 2008 at 9:26 am