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Two Mini Reviews

Monday, June 29th, 2015

[by Mark Safranski, a.k.a. “zen“]

I have a tremendous backlog of good books to review that I have read in recent months and I am facing the fact that it is dubious that I will ever to get to feature most of them here.  As a stopgap, I am going to try a few mini-reviews instead of the more noteworthy, or at least interesting, titles. Here are two:

1. Stalin: Volume I Paradoxes of Power

Stalin: Vol. 1: Paradoxes of Power 1878-1928  by Stephen Kotkin

Eminent diplomatic historian John Lewis Gaddis praises Princeton’s Stephen Kotkin for his new biography, calling it “A monumental achievement”. This is certainly correct. Kotkin has done more than break new ground with Stalin: Paradoxes of Power; in my view it is arguably the best book on Joseph Stalin ever written.

Admittedly this is high praise. It is true, that Kotkin is not in the same literary class as Simon Sebag Montefiore, who demonstrated his great prose skill with masterfully written and deeply researched biographies of Stalin, but Kotkin is always a clear, effective and always forceful writer. Where Kotkin excels is in the granularity of his biographical narrative, unearthing aspects of Stalin’s childhood and early revolutionary days, the intra-party rivalries with leading Bolshevik personalities, especially Stalin’s complicated relationship with Vladimir Lenin and Stalin’s skill as a politician and grand strategist. The narrative is accompanied with Kotkin’s piercing psychological analysis of Stalin’s criminal psychopathology emerging from a combination of complex rational political calculation and a bottomless well of narcissistic self-pity that ate away at Stalin’s soul.

If volume 2 equals the first book, Kotkin will have written the definitive work of Stalin for years to come.

II. Salinger

Salinger by David Shields and Shane Salerno

The book that accompanied the documentary of the same name, David Shields and Shane Salerno have put together a remarkable page turner that explains the mystifying author behind one of America’s most iconic literary works.

“Don’t worry if all of the first wave of you are killed, We shall simply pass over your bodies with more and more men” 

J.D. Salinger’s counterintelligence unit spearheaded the landing of the 4th Division on Utah Beach on D-Day, Salinger participated in five major battles in the European theater including the deadly Hurtgen Forest where his regiment suffered 200% casualties and GI’s fighting in summer uniforms without blankets or winter coats froze to death in foxholes. A CIC field interrogator, Salinger operated with great freedom and authority and after participating in the liberation of the concentration camp complex known to history as Dachau, he checked himself into a mental hospital. To paraphrase Shields and Salerno, J.D. Salinger carried six chapters of The Catcher in the Rye in to battle with him, a book that took him ten years to write and which he then regretted for the rest of his life.

Salinger the Documentary

New Books

Saturday, April 4th, 2015

[by Mark Safranski, a.k.a. “zen“]

          

The Strategist: Brent Scowcroft ad the Call of National Security by Bartholomew Sparrow

The Fall of the Athenian Empire by Donald Kagan

The Memoirs of Ernst Rohm by Ernst Rohm

Heinrich Himmler by Peter Longerich 

The Origins of the Final Solution by Christopher Browning

The Hitler Book: The Secret Dossier Prepared for Stalin by Henrik Eberle

Some new books….

The bio of Brent Scowcroft, if my impressions from picking up and opening to two random sections are valid, is going to be very. very good (they were on Scowcroft’s estimation of the working relationship of Henry Kissinger and Richard Nixon and Scowcroft’s strategic adice to the first President Bush during German reunification). I was very impressed both with Sparrow’s prose and his ability to let Scowcroft’s voice shine through the text.

I’m a fan of the pessimistic Donald Kagan and recommend his Yale Open Courseware series on Ancient Greece from time to time to my own students who show an interest in the Classical world. One of Kagan’s students, now an academic nautical archaeologist, John R. Hale, also produced a fine history of the Athenian navy and the intertwining of thalassocracy, empire and the Radical Democracy and I recommend that book to my students as well.

The next three books are related.  Last year I read the frequently useful, but also at times turgidly tedious, I Knew Hitler, by Kurt G. W. Ludecke. The cause of Ludecke’s downfall with his semi-friend Adolf Hitler was the former’s constant embrace and enthusiastic promotion of the populist roughneck, leftist and “idealist” figures in the Nazi Party, like Ernst Rohm, the Strasser brothers and Alfred Rosenberg and Ludecke’s belief that the “movement” came before the Fuhrer. Ludecke dedicated his massive memoir to the memory of Rohm, who was the catalyst between the old Freikorps paramilitarism of the old German nationalist Right and its hideous and radicalized offspring, National Socialism. Rohm is a key figure in the development of Nazism and a complicated one, being one of the few early Nazi leaders to have been on familiar (“Du”) terms with Adolf Hitler and his sudden fall had wider implications than were realized at the time – including inspiring Stalin to reshape Soviet society with terror and murder  (“Hitler, he shows us how to deal with political opponents!”). Rohm’s memoir has been partially translated into English and deals with the early years when the Nazis were but one extremist party in an ecosystem of radical right German politics.

Peter Longerich is one of the top German experts on the Holocaust and it is fitting that he has completed a monumental biography of Rohm’s former deputy, Heinrich Himmler, Reichsfuhrer-SS and the chief implementer of the Holocaust of European Jewry. Chris Browning, another expert on the Holocaust also has much to say on the role of Himmler and competing Nazi functionaries in the evolution of genocide as a state policy of the Third Reich. Finally, The Hitler Book was an NKVD/MGB top secret analysis put together by Soviet intelligence for Josef Stalin, mirroring, to a small extent, the OSS psychological profiling of Hitler and top Nazi leaders during the war.

Recently, T. Greer of Scholar’s Stage blog asked me how many of the strategy related books on my shelves had been read vs. being in the antilibrary. The answer was “most”. My antilibrary tends toward history and biography where I buy books more quickly than I can read them, while more instrumental books are bought and read shortly thereafter. I also trend toward “collecting” in Soviet studies, classical antiquity, Second and Third Reich Germany, US diplomatic history and books related to the Nixon administration.

What are you reading and buying these days?

Reading “Hard” Books vs. Pretending to Do So

Sunday, December 14th, 2014

[by Mark Safranski, a.k.a. “zen“]

The other day, some friends shared an old post by controversial conservative activist, writer and publisher of  The Federalist,  Ben Domenech, that struck a chord:

The Top Ten Books People Lie About Reading 

Have you ever lied about reading a book? Maybe you didn’t want to seem stupid in front of someone you respected. Maybe you rationalized it by reasoning that you had a familiarity with the book, or knew who the author was, or what the story was about, or had glanced at its Wikipedia page. Or maybe you had tried to read the book, even bought it and set it by your bed for months unopened, hoping that it would impart what was in it merely via proximity (if that worked, please email me). 

I have not, though I frequently catch many people in conversation and even more online who do.

What does happen too often is a sense of despair welling up as my Antilibrary looks down from the shelves with disapproval as I wonder when I will ever get around to reading them. Maybe this weird bibliophiliac guilt is what spurs people to lie about books they have read. Or perhaps they merely are lazy and want intellectual street cred without the work:

….Take Neil DeGrasse Tyson as one example, whom the internet loves with an unrestrained passion usually reserved for fluffy cat videos. He was asked a few years ago on reddit to share his recommended reading list.Given his brief commentary on the eight books he recommends, he seems largely unfamiliar with the actual content of the works by Adam Smith, Thomas Paine, Niccolo Machiavelli, and particularly Sun Tzu, who views the avoidance of killing as the best form of warfare.

The truth is, there are lots of books no one really expects you to read or finish. War and Peace? The Canterbury Tales? The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire? Announcing that you’ve finished those books might surprise a lot of people and make them think you’re abnormal or anti-social, unless you’re an English or History major who took their reading very, very seriously. Perhaps the shift to ebook format will diminish this reading by osmosis – and book sales, too – since people can afford to be honest about their preference for 50 Shades over The Red and the Black since their booklists are hidden in their Kindles and iPads.

E-reading and reading a book are different experiences. I read Caesar’s Conquest of Gaul on a kindle once. It was convenient, as I was traveling, but the kindle seemed better suited for fiction; with a serious book, I felt the need to mark up pages with marginalia. I last used the Kindle for reading Daniel Suarez’s Daemon and Freedom and then gave it to my Eldest child:

So here’s my attempt to drill this down to a more realistic list: books that are culturally ubiquitous, reading deemed essential, writing everyone has heard of… that you’d be mildly embarrassed to admit you’ve never read.

10. Atlas Shrugged, Ayn Rand: The libertarian moment has prompted a slew of people to lie about reading Ayn Rand, or to deploy the term “Randian” as a synonym for, say, competitive bidding in Medicare reform without even bothering to understand how nonsensical that is.

9. On the Origin of Species, Charles Darwin: Many pro-evolutionists online display no understanding that the pro-evolution scientific community rejects the bulk of Darwin’s initial findings about evolution.

8. Les Miserables, Victor Hugo and A Tale of Two Cities, Charles Dickens: Virtually every bit of literature about the French Revolution could be tied here, though ignorance of it might inspire fun future headlines, such as “De Blasio Brandishes Knitting Needles, Calls For ‘The People’s Guillotine’ To Be Erected In Times Square.”

7. 1984, George Orwell: A great example of a book people think they have read because they have seen a television ad. On Youtube.

6. Democracy in America, Alexis De Tocqueville: Politicians are the worst about this, quoting and misquoting the writings of the Tocqueville without ever bothering to actually read this essential work. But politicians do this a lot – with The Federalist Papers and The Constitution, too.

Read the rest here.

I have read # 10, 7, 3 and 2 multiple times each and expect I will read them again.  I’ve read de Tocqueville and Tale of Two Cities once. I have looked up stuff in Wealth of Nations but never read it despite having read von Hayek, von Mises, Galbraith, Friedman, Veblen and Marx. I can’t muster much enthusiasm either for Melville or James Joyce, though if forced to choose, I’d select the former.

There’s a lot of intellectual merit – and consequent pride, sort of a nerd throw-down bragging rights – in conquering a “hard” book. I’ve read many that didn’t make that particular list, but perhaps should – Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire,  Montesquieu’s The Spirit of the Laws, Clausewitz’s On War, Aristotle’s The Politics, Herodotus and Thucydides and (in a more modern vein) Barzun’s  Dawn to Decadence or Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago.  But there’s many more I have not yet read and worse, may never get to, for lack of time or inclination. My hat is off to those who have slogged through Hobbes’ Leviathan or Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason because I’m dubious that I ever will; and while I will probably get around to The Muqaddimah, I’m not sure if I will ever dive into Montaigne or Spengler or most of the great twentieth century novelists. Our time is scarce and so we must choose.

This is of course, what makes book-phonies so worthy of ridicule. There’s something pretentious and absurd about holding forth on a book you have not yourself read as if you were an expert. It’s not remotely as morally serious as the “Stolen honor” frauds who are regularly exposed faking military heroics, but the “Stolen intellect” pretenders to knowledge have a similar motivation and in the end, they are only fooling themselves.

What “hard” books do you take pride in having read?

“Friends of Zenpundit Who Wrote Books” # 3

Monday, December 16th, 2013

[by Mark Safranski, a.k.a. “zen“]

As the holiday season is here, I thought it would be amusing between now and Christmas to do a series of posts on books by people who have, in some fashion, been friends of ZP by supporting us with links, guest-posts, friendly comments and other intuitive gestures of online association. One keyboard washes the other.

Gian Gentile 

 

Wrong Turn: America’s Deadly Embrace of Counterinsurgency 

How Effective is Strategic Bombing?: Lessons Learned From World War II to Kosovo 

Colonel Gentile is a historian, a professor at West Point, a combat veteran of Iraq and is the foremost public critic of pop-centric COIN theory around, bar none, which he has translated into a book-length critique that is required reading for the con side of the COIN debate. Gian has also been kind enough to grace the comment section here from time to time as well as participating in the Afghanistan 2050 Roundtable at ChicagoBoyz blog.

Don Vandergriff

  

Manning the Future Legions of the United States: Finding and Developing Tomorrow’s Centurions 

Spirit, Blood and Treasure: The American Cost of Battle in the 21st Century 

The Path to Victory

Raising the Bar: Creating and Nurturing Adaptability to Deal with the Changing Face of War 

I have had the pleasure of hearing Don speak and demonstrate some of his adaptive leadership techniques at the Boyd Conferences which I greatly enjoyed and strongly endorse, for those interested in having Vandergriff as a speaker or consultant. His absence this year at Boyd was much regretted but Don was off doing some important work this year overseas. Catch him in print instead.

John Robb 

Brave New War: The Next Stage of Terrorism and the End of Globalization 

I am an unabashed huge fan of John’s work and Global Guerrillas has been on my (very) short list of must read sites for years. This book, like Ronfeldt and Arquilla’s Netwars, is a classic of emerging trends in warfare and strategy that belongs on your shelf.

Two from the Comments Section on Wylie

Thursday, November 21st, 2013

 

Grip, the post by Lynn Rees generated comments linking to two further posts on the topic of Rear Admiral Joseph Caldwell  (J.C.) Wylie, Jr. and his  Military Strategy: A General Theory of Power Control which I suspect are of interest to many readers here:

Seydlitz89 – Towards a General Theory of Strategy: A Review of Admiral JC Wylie’s “Military Strategy” 

….I will introduce and discuss six specific areas of Wylie’s book. The first regards the nature of strategy itself including his view of what strategy should be able to accomplish and the nature of strategic theory. Second is his actual definition of strategy and some of the assumptions behind it. Third is the methods of studying strategy including his comments on cumulative and sequential strategies. The fourth is one aspect of his commentary in regards to Mao, and the fifth pertains to his second assumption in regards to “control over the enemy” and the final point regards his overall view of a general theory of strategy which ties all the points together. 

One of Wylie’s most valid points is that military and naval officers who command and plan our military operations use certain patterns of thought which are essentially strategic without even them being aware of it:

An idea is a very powerful thing, and political ideas or religious ideas or economic ideas have always affected and often controlled the courses of man’s destinies. That we understand and accept. So also have strategic ideas influenced or controlled man’s destinies, but too few men, including the men who had them, have recognized the controlling strategic concepts and theories hidden behind the glamor or the stench or the vivid, active drama of the war itself.(page 9)
Not only that, but a soldier, a sailor and an airman look at the same operation in very different ways, the airman especially “stands apart in basic principle from them both”. For this reason Wylie sees a general theory of strategy necessary in order to bring these different perspectives together in a way that makes sense of the whole: “what is necessary is that the whole of the thing, all of war, be studied” (p 12). The project he takes on is daunting in that “the intellectual framework is not clearly defined, and its vocabulary is almost non-existent” (p 11).

NerveAgent – J.C. Wylie: American Clausewitz? 

….To formulate his own theory, Wylie starts from four guiding assumptions:

1. There may be a war, despite all efforts to prevent it. The reasoning behind this point should be self-explanatory, but alas, liberal internationalists consistently fail to grasp it.

2. The aim of war is some measure of control over the enemy. This is one of Wylie’s most important points. With it, he explains the strategic object of war itself, above the operational focus of the Clausewitzian dictum of disarming the enemy. After all, as Clausewitz himself acknowledges, destroying the enemy’s army is a means to an end. The end is control. What “control” is will differ depending on the war itself and the value judgements of the parties involved. For the West, control usually involves the defeated being accepted back into the world community, but not as a threat.

3. We cannot predict with certainty the pattern of the war for which we prepare ourselves.Wylie would certainly take issue with all the rhetoric today that would have the U.S. abandon “obsolete Cold War thinking” in favor strategies geared primarily for irregular warfare. His point is that strategists must be provided with all the necessary tools from which they can craft plans to deal with individual contingencies, especially if official U.S. policy is to have full-spectrum capabilities.

4. The ultimate determinant in war is the man on the scene with the gun. This acknowledges that, if all else has failed, only land power can impose control upon the enemy.

From these assumptions, he develops the statement that is the core of his work:

The primary aim of the strategist in the conduct of war is some selected degree of control of the enemy for the strategist’s own purpose; this is achieved by control of the pattern of war; and this control of the pattern of war is had by manipulation of the center of gravity of war to the advantage of the strategist and the disadvantage of the opponent.

The successful strategist is the one who controls the nature and the placement and the timing and the weight of the centers of gravity of war, and who exploits the resulting control of the pattern of war toward his own ends.


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