I think Robert Louis Wilken is fantastic, but this is the weakest book of his that I have read. It is not that it is bad, or wrong, or stupid, in any way. It is that it falls into the genre I call “capsule history,” where many short chapters cover different happenings, and only a loose framework connects the chapters. The result is that a reader can learn something, or can even learn quite a bit, but the experience is too much like reading an encyclopedia. On the other hand, the book does consistently excel in one thing—communicating the loss suffered when Islam dominated or exterminated Christianity in its lands of first flourishing, from northern Africa to Mesopotamia. And if you’re looking for a factual overview of the first thousand years of Christianity, you’ll certainly get it here.
This is a short book with a sweeping thesis. In essence, the thesis of The Geography of Thought is that many important cognitive processes dominant in East Asian (i.e., Chinese, Japanese and Korean) cultures are substantially different from those processes in Western (i.e., American and European) cultures. This proposition explains a variety of dissimilarities in how people from each culture approach the world and each other, and it is also a partial explanation of the Great Divergence—why the modern world was created by the West, and by nobody else, to the lasting (so far) benefit of the West. While the author, Richard Nisbett, goes to great lengths to not ascribe superiority to one type of cognition over another, his cultural analyses show why the Scientific Revolution and the Industrial Revolution could not have happened in East Asia. As they say, though, past performance is no guarantee of future results, and perhaps the relative value of Western ways of thought has passed its use-by date.
This book, published in 2009, shows its age. It was written before the mass immigration to Europe of the past few years, and also before the increase in Muslim terror. While nothing the book says is wrong, and its analysis is sound enough (though it nowhere justifies, or even attempts to justify, the echo of Burke in its title), its problem is that nearly everything it contains is outdated. The future has arrived, and it is much worse than Caldwell pessimistically predicted, though at least we can now look forward to a fresh future for Europe that will be even farther downhill.
Americans have always liked fighting stories: autobiographical and third person, fictional and non-fictional. From dime novels about outlaws and Indians to, more recently, war movies, Americans have vicariously enjoyed American combat, and American successes in combat. There are even meta fighting stories: an organizing frame of Clint Eastwood’s movie Unforgiven is a biographer trailing Eastwood’s character to write a dime novel. As far as the recent Afghanistan and Iraq wars, early movies (i.e., under Bush) were mostly high-profile flops attacking America (Rendition; Lions for Lambs). Later movies (i.e., under Obama, where it was no longer regarded as necessary by those controlling the film industry to attack Bush rather than make profits) included some such, but moved toward depicting American heroism (Lone Survivor; American Sniper). Not incidentally, those two latter movies were based on autobiographical books, rather than the fever dreams of Hollywood leftists, and this book, Clinton Romesha’s Red Platoon, falls squarely into that genre.
The Gunpowder Age succeeds in its lesser goal, which is convincing the reader that the common belief the Chinese only used gunpowder for fireworks is wrong. But it fails in its greater goal, which is convincing the reader that except for a brief period in recent history, China has been the equal of the West in the technology of warfare. And, in the wreckage of its failure, it confirms and reinforces the accurate perception that China has, for a thousand years, been lacking in scientific and cultural innovation. Since a lack of innovation has negative implications for the Chinese future, and by modern Western standards is a negative judgment on Chinese society, this is probably not the effect that the Sinophile author of this book, Tonio Andrade, intended to achieve.
This book is ferociously erudite, but tinged with obsession. True, nearly all modern academic and popular mention of Muslim Spain endorses an easily disproved falsehood—that Muslim Spain was a golden land of tolerance, offering unique scientific and cultural advancement. So I suppose that the opposite falsehood, that Muslim Spain was a nasty land of unbroken intolerance where nothing was accomplished, in a sense merely balances the scales. But a reader of The Myth of the Andalusian Paradise still feels like he’s once again only getting part of the picture, and getting berated into the bargain, rather than getting what most readers really want, which is an analysis that is as objective as possible.
Everyone knows about the French Foreign Legion. Mostly, though, our knowledge ranges from impressionistic to false, derived largely from movies and with an overlay of the kneejerk odium that attends colonialism. At The Edge of the World: The Heroic Century of the French Foreign Legion corrects that lack of knowledge—it gives an excellent overview, both factually and, as it were, spiritually, of the Legion in its heyday, along with some oblique perspectives on the positive and negative aspects of colonialism.
I have a confession to make. The first history I learned about the Vietnam War was from watching the move Rambo, in 1985. Around the same time, and viewable on VHS (what’s that, Daddy?) if you missed it in the theater, were movies like Platoon and Full Metal Jacket, the latter set during the battle that is the focus of this book. From these movies, naturally, I learned little real history, and haven’t learned much more about Vietnam since. In fact, when I was a young lawyer at a giant law firm, I used to amuse myself by needling the senior partners, rich, aging hippies all, by telling them that I thought of World War I and the Vietnam War as roughly contemporaneous, and equally relevant to the modern age—that is, not at all. They were not amused.
I have read David Goldman for a long time, under his alter ego, Spengler, a columnist for the Asia Times. His columns are invariably excellent—pithy, insightful, and a pleasure to read. But the talent set required to be a columnist is very different than that required of a book author. Many columnists are unable to write a book that is other than either a set of compiled columns or a padded out column. The late Joseph Sobran, who wrote for National Review when it was more than a forum for third-rate neoconservatives angling for jobs under Republican politicians, was one such. David Goldman is another, and it shows in the many defects of this 2011 book, How Civilizations Die.
When I think about Albania, which is not often, I usually think about Communist dictator Enver Hoxha and the hundreds of thousands of reinforced concrete pillboxes he scattered around Albania, preparing for the imminent assault of the imperialists. Other than that, if I’m in a historical mood, I think about Skanderbeg, the Sixteenth Century freedom fighter against the conquering Ottomans. If I’m thinking about the modern era, maybe I think about Mother Teresa, or on a less exalted level, Jim Belushi. I don’t, or didn’t, think about Venice, or Lepanto, or Jesuits, or any of the very interesting, and even exciting, places, people, and happenings Noel Malcolm covers. This book, however, has changed my perspective.