So many books to read, so little time.

Archive for October 21st, 2008

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

New Look

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Changed the site’s look so the individual authors’ names would be displayed. Would have liked to keep clean outline with book, but displaying the names was impossible with it.

Written by Adam Elkus

October 21, 2008 at 7:26 am

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James Woods, Zadie Smith, and “Hysterical Realism”

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James Woods, a esteemed literary critic, made headlines in 2004 by denouncing Zadie Smith’s White Teeth and the novels of Jonathan Safran Foer as a form of “hysterical realism:”

Hysterical realism is not exactly magical realism, but magical realism’s next stop. It is characterised by a fear of silence. This kind of realism is a perpetual motion machine that appears to have been embarrassed into velocity. Stories and sub-stories sprout on every page. There is a pursuit of vitality at all costs. Recent novels by Rushdie, Pynchon, DeLillo, Foster Wallace, Zadie Smith and others have featured a great rock musician who played air guitar in his crib (Rushdie); a talking dog, a mechanical duck and a giant octagonal cheese (Pynchon); a nun obsessed with germs who may be a reincarnation of J Edgar Hoover (DeLillo); a terrorist group devoted to the liberation of Quebec who move around in wheelchairs (Foster Wallace); and a terrorist Islamic group based in North London with the silly acronym Kevin (Smith).

While I personally loathe Jonathan Safran Foer’s work, I am a bit uneasy about the idea that the novel can’t be messy, expansive, and above all have a postmodern sensibility. Thoughts?

Written by Adam Elkus

October 21, 2008 at 7:23 am

New Reading

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Just picked up some new books for the weekend–an anthology of Georg Simmel’s thought as well as his Philosophy of Money, a Weber anthology, and lastly Durkheim’s famous analysis of suicide in the book of the same name.

Looking for some books on cybernetics and systems theory. It may help me get a better understanding of Thomas P.M. Barnett’s work, which heavily relies on systems theory applied to international relations and economics. Any suggestions?

Written by Adam Elkus

October 21, 2008 at 7:03 am