My appetite for non-fiction is pretty much equal to my appetite for fiction. I read memoirs, essays, and observations as I would read a novel, keyed into the author’s voice. When I read history, though, I read for the information, as though I’m auditing a course at my local community college. I underline the important parts, I try to process the information and place it in context. Sometimes I take notes. I read history when I want to know the facts, and that’s why I love John Keegan. His writing is clear, and he brings unassailable expertise to his books. I first discovered him a while back when I read part two of Ian McEwan’s Atonement in which the evacuation of British forces from France in the face of German invasion is described. McEwan’s vivid description of the grim realities of a small and somewhat forgotten event inspired me to read about World War II in search of more small, somewhat forgotten events. My knowledge of history comes from high school, a few courses in college, the History Channel, and a scattershot array of books I’ve read over the years. I know the big picture, the facts that we are all supposed to know, but, in the case of World War II, I didn’t know the nuances, the details, and campaigns and events that textbooks push to the background in the interest of smoothing out the narrative to assist in the learning process. I found that The First World War neither skimped on the specifics nor did it overwhelm with minutiae. I learned about the Greek campaigns and just how close the Allies were to losing the war. I learned about the British evacuation from France, and, in the end, understood the chronology of events and how all the pieces fit together. As an added bonus, Keegan every once in a while would pause the narrative to describe the realities on the ground, to explain what it was to be a soldier (or a general) fighting in this war. These invaluable nuggets are what make the book great. Naturally, I began adding Keegan books to the queue. The First World War is another great book, and a must read for anyone who wishes to have deeper knowledge of that cataclysmic event. Some fascinating insights: WWI represents a dividing line in history, and much more than the events that preceded it, WWI is responsible for shaping the world order of the last 90 years; this truly was a global war with campaigns in Africa and Asia; though the terrible nature of trench warfare is well-known, Keegan’s descriptions of the realities of the life of a WWI soldier are indispensable. If you are interested in military history, you won’t be disappointed by John Keegan.
Jon Lee Anderson is a top-tier foreign correspondent. Writing for the New Yorker, he has spent much of the current decade reporting in Afghanistan and Iraq. Unlike many of his “embedded” colleagues, however, Anderson strays far from the relative safety of American protection into the homes and offices of people on the ground, talking to people from all walks of life, all the way up to heads of state.But Anderson is at his best when he talks to the little guys who toil in the shadow of war, whether as participants or bystanders. His book Guerrillas is about those little guys. In Guerrillas, Anderson takes an almost anthropological view of five insurgent movements that simmered and raged in far flung corners of the globe: the mujahedin of Afghanistan, the FMLN of El Salvador, the Karen of Burma, the Polisario of Western Sahara, and the Palestinians in the Gaza Strip. The book covers a three year period, December 1988 to January 1992, that Anderson spent traveling around the world, putting time in with those groups. The book is not divided up by geography, as I had expected it would be, but instead Anderson finds themes that are common among guerrilla movements and spends a chapter on each one, beginning with “Creation Myths” and moving on to “Earning a Living” and “Making War,” among others.His point of view is steadfastly observant and unbiased. He chronicles in the same tone the atrocities committed by insurgents and their oppressors. Anderson’s viewpoint is an interesting one, though. He portrays these movements as being in the grip of a sort of madness, for example:In the refugee camps of Gaza, the desert of Western Sahara, the hills of Chalatenago, and the teak forests of Kawthoolei, revolutions are under way, and the guerrillas dwell in separate realities, parallel to those they are rebelling against.This madness, brought on by oppression or at the very least the deprivation of life’s comforts and a sense of safety, drive whole societies to embrace violence and killing as the only answer.But Guerrillas is not merely a checklist of battles and conflicts, the book brims with bright characters, from mujahedin commanders in Afghanistan who slyly let their men blare outlawed music to bards among the compas in El Salvador who promote revolution through verse. Though Anderson does not share Ryszard Kapuscinski’s tone of wonder and eye for quirky detail when enveloped in a foreign culture, his observations have considerable depth and provide the necessary context to shine a light on these often misunderstood conflicts.Originally published in 1992, Guerrillas is improved in a 2004 paperback edition by an introduction and an afterword. The introduction dwells mostly on the then burgeoning insurgency in Iraq, drawing parallels to the insurgencies Anderson covered 15 years prior. In his view, what happened in Iraq was utterly predictable when viewed against the backdrops of earlier conflicts. The afterword, meanwhile, gives a “where are they now” update of the five guerrilla movements covered in the book. Some have fizzled or become legitimate political movements, while two have had far reaching consequences. The Palestinian and Israeli conflict has provided an ever worsening backdrop of violence in the region, while the Afgan insurgency against communist invaders metastasized into a haven for al Qaeda, and ultimately changed the world. This last point underscores the importance of Anderson’s book. Upon original publication, the book must have seemed like a travelogue of dangerous places, but Anderson was really exploring the seeds of conflict that would grow to a global scale a decade hence.
This guest contribution comes from Timothy R. Homan, a journalist based in Washington, D.C.In September, as many Americans reflect on the sixth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, four government reports detailing progress in the war in Iraq will be presented to Congress and the American public. The most anticipated of these is expected to document the findings and recommendations of Gen. David H. Petraeus, head of U.S. military forces in Iraq.Recently, the White House acknowledged that instead of limiting authorship of the report to Petraeus, as initially expected, Bush administration officials such as U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Ryan C. Crocker, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates will add their take on whether military and political benchmarks in Iraq are being met.While the scope of the report is limited to progress in achieving benchmarks, the underlying question persists: Are the benchmarks and troop surge moving the United States towards victory in Iraq? Similarly, what constitutes victory in modern warfare, particularly in a conflict such as the war on terror?Author William C. Martel tackles those questions, from a predominantly historical perspective, in his new book, Victory in War: Foundations of Modern Military Policy (Cambridge University Press, 2007). Martel, a professor of international security studies at Tufts University who has also taught at the Naval War College, argues that since victory in war means different things to different people there is no coherent definition, making it difficult to craft effective wartime strategies.It’s not a new argument, but certainly a timely one, especially since military leaders, policymakers and politicians, all with their own understanding of victory, will contribute to the Petraeus report.The book begins with brief descriptions (a few paragraphs each) of how military leaders, theorists and state leaders over the centuries have defined victory. Of the 59 thinkers summarized, some are familiar – Mao Zedong and Napoleon Bonaparte – while others, like John I. Alger and Azar Gat, are less so. Still, the format proves a useful tool for comparison, in case you’ve ever wanted to see how Machiavelli’s impression of victory (dominate the enemy completely) stacks up against that of Sun Tzu (avoid any war if at all possible).Different types of victory – tactical, political-military and grand strategic – are ascribed to the Revolutionary War, Civil War, Vietnam War and others, followed by more detailed cases studies of six recent U.S. military conflicts, starting with the 1986 bombing raid on Libya, a country now in the process of normalizing relations with the United States, and ending with the 2003 invasion of Iraq.Overall, Martel, a regular contributor to the op-ed pages of the Providence Journal, lays out his well-sourced argument in a fairly readable fashion. But in the book’s 309 pages of text, there certainly are moments when he lapses into the lexicon of academia. Early on, Martel qualifies the aim of the book, writing, “The intent is to build the foundations of a pretheory of victory, on the premise that such pretheoretical concepts will be useful for scholars who are interested in comprehending, in formal and systematic terms, the relationship between war and victory.”For those not familiar with what pretheory is (i.e. pretty much anyone who isn’t a social scientist), Martel offers this explanation: “A pretheory describes the process of conceptual exploration that is designed to identify carefully and observe relationships in a field of inquiry, and subsequently to formulate organizing principles and testable theories.”Martel is more direct when discussing two events that will likely be of high interest to most readers – the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq – while acknowledging their limited achievements.In Afghanistan: “The outcome of the ongoing Operation Enduring Freedom seems consistent with the grand strategic victory intended (although U.S. policymakers did not use that phrase directly) in that the United States has achieved its objectives – with the exception of capturing (or killing) the top leadership of al-Qaeda and Taliban, Osama bin Laden and Mullah Omar.”In Iraq, where the outcome is still murky, Martel writes: “Whether the forces of democratization take hold in Iraq will influence judgments about a U.S. victory, as will the length and violence of the postinvasion occupation and the timing and conditions of the U.S. withdrawal.”While some may want to frame victory against the Iraqi insurgency as a moving target, Martel essentially argues that such an approach misrepresents the appropriate definition of victory for this conflict.He writes: “While we could describe victory in Iraq on the basis of classic measures of defeat, such as territory lost or gained, defeating the opponent’s military forces, or destroying its economy and infrastructure, these measures would be inadequate here because this war is being waged on ideological grounds.”That’s something to keep in mind when reading the achievements highlighted in the Petraeus report.
Journalists have a responsibility to tell the truth. Accordingly, most reporters and editors would like to think, or believe, that they successfully fulfill that duty. In Reckless Disregard, Renata Adler demonstrates that a news organization’s commitment to proving the veracity of a story runs the risk of covering the truth and justifying falsehoods, however.In fall 1982 and summer 1983 two lawsuits filed in the Southern District of New York tested the nerves of both plaintiffs and defendants – in these instances news organizations Time Magazine and CBS. Adler meticulously chronicled the cases of Sharon v. Time and Westmoreland v. CBS for the New Yorker, and then compiled her reporting – with additional passages and a scathing Coda (epilogue) – in Reckless Disregard.The “actual malice” standard, established by Supreme Court ruling in New York Times v. Sullivan (1964), is the cornerstone of libel suits against the press/media. A libel plaintiff in the U.S. faces an uphill battle and bears the burden of proof; i.e., the defendant does not have to prove innocence. Instead the plaintiff has to prove with clear and convincing evidence that the published “statement was made with knowledge of its falsity or with reckless disregard of whether it was true or false.”Israeli Minister Ariel Sharon, therefore, had to prove that the Time’s article, “The Verdict is Guilty,” which suggested that he was responsible for the massacres carried out by Phalangist soldiers on September 17-19, 1982, in Palestinian refugee camps in Sabra and Shatila in Beirut, Lebanon, were published despite contrary information available to the magazine’s reporters.General William Westmoreland, the commander in Vietnam from 1964 to 1968, carried the burden of showing that CBS had libeled him in the documentary “The Uncounted Enemy: A Vietnam Deception” by knowingly ignoring hours of interviews and extensive information which demonstrated that, unlike the program’s assertion, he had not tempered with the Order of Battle to draw an optimistic view of the war, hence conspire to trick the government and the people.Adler raises important questions in Reckless Disregard: is actual malice, originally intended to protect the press’ First Amendment rights, used to justify publishing falsities? What do Time and CBS’ all-out-litigation-war strategy – conducted by the prestigious, aggressive law firm Cravath – say about the truthfulness of their reporting? Who, really, is the victim in these cases – the media or the plaintiffs?Reckless Disregard presents to the reader, in a matter-of-fact manner, how both cases unfolded, albeit being slightly sympathetic towards the plaintiffs. The record, as presented by Adler, indicates that news organizations can be slanted, that they might have an agenda, or theory, which they believe merits advancing, and that they might drift away from the facts to create more scandalous news/documentaries.This is all sad, of course, especially to an aspiring journalist. But if you are interested in law, reporting and David-vs.-Goliath scenarios you should consider Reckless Disregard. Adler sure succeeds in showing that a supposed victim (Time and CBS and, consequently, the media’s First Amendment rights) might actually be the aggressor (merciless litigation that resulted in Sharon and Westmoreland to lose credible libel cases). Her narrative of the cases was deemed threatening – to the point that CBS and Cravath tried to intimidate the author and Knopf, her publisher, and stop the publication of Reckless Disregard. Adler seems to have hit the right chords after all.