As will surprise nobody who is paying any attention, I am preparing for war. Why hide it? Although only a fool or someone with a distorted moral sense would actually wish for war, what we wish has little to do with it. Intermittent war is the natural state of man, whatever Steven Pinker may say, and as Trotsky said, more or less, “You may not be interested in war, but war is interested in you.” What follows today’s Age of Stupid will, we can be certain, not be endless tides of more stupidity, because that is impossible. And to get from here to there, whatever “there” is, will most likely requiring passing through what the Chinese call “interesting times,” in which hot, flying metal will play a prominent part.
When we think of the Soviet Union, we mostly think of it as a fully realized totalitarian state. We think of Stalin, of World War II and of the Cold War. Lenin is a shadowy figure to most of us, usually lumped in with the chaos that preceded and surrounded the Russian Revolution. As a result, biographies of Stalin and histories of the Cold War are a dime a dozen, but there are few objective biographies of Lenin. Lenin, though, was the true author of Soviet totalitarianism, and, more importantly, he, and he alone, was the indispensable man to the creation of Communism as a realized state, even if he did not live to see it. His life, therefore, is important, in that it illuminates history, and also in that it provides, in some ways, an instruction book for those seeking change today.
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.
Reading this third volume of Richard Evans’s massive study of the Third Reich, scenes from the TV show The Man in the High Castle kept flashing before my eyes. That show (based on a Philip K. Dick book) posits a Nazi victory in World War II, and depicts how the postwar Greater German Reich affects the people who live under it. The problem with Evans’s book is that it fails to paint such scenes for the actual Third Reich. Rather, it is an endless litany of dead innocents and how they were killed, mixed with occasional talk of political and military happenings, along with a tiny bit about daily life for average civilians. And while listing how millions of innocents were killed is certainly a task that could fill many, and longer, books, after a while it becomes a chronicle of atrocity, not a work of synthesized history.
The study of history is dead. That may seem an odd assertion, given that I am reviewing a very good work of history, Adrian Goldsworthy’s The Punic Wars. But books like this are read by a tiny audience—hard to say how big, but I would be shocked if more than ten thousand people had read this book, and it is by a known author. As far as I can tell, nearly nobody in public life, whether in politics, the media, popular entertainment, big business, or even most of the academic world, knows anything about actual history.
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.
Leviathan Wakes is extremely well written, with a tight plot and carefully chosen prose. This alone separates it from the vast majority of today’s science fiction. Nor is it tendentious message fiction, further separating it from most modern science fiction, which is all about the navel-gazing identity of the characters, mostly as thinly veiled metaphor for present-day political conflicts. Thus, the taut, straightforward story here has broad appeal, which is doubtless is at least part of the reason it has been serialized into a TV series (on SyFy), called The Expanse. I haven’t seen the series, but if it is reasonably faithful to the book, it is probably very much worth watching. Most importantly, it shows how a modern version of Manifest Destiny could work, a consummation devoutly to be wished.
The Earth Is Weeping offers an almost painfully even-handed look at the conflicts between the United States and American Indian tribes after the Civil War. Of course, given the historiography of the past fifty years, an even-handed look necessarily inverts the traditional narrative. Here, Team Indian does good and bad, and Team White does good and bad, each according to its own internal dictates of morality and external dictates of practicality and need. The Sioux are expelled from their land—which they conquered only ten years before by slaughtering the previous inhabitants with extreme brutality. The white man (and the Mexican, and the white man’s numerous Indian allies) usually breaks treaties and sometimes kills women and children. Here is no morality tale, but the old and inevitable tale of nomad vs. nomad vs. state—new, perhaps, in Sumer, but not new in 1870.
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.