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WE ASKED NINE EXPERTS TO TELL US ABOUT THE MOST ILLUMINATING NEW BOOKS ON A PERENNIAL SUBJECT: WAR.

Barbara Ehrenreich, author of The Snarling Citizen: Essays (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1995) and Fear of Falling: The Inner Life of the American Middle Class (Pantheon, 1989). Her Blood Rites: Origins and History of the Passions of War will be published in 1997 by Metropolitan Books.

"According to one of the enduring shibboleths of anthropology, there is 'primitive war' and there is 'real war.' The distinction arose with the anthropologist Harry Turney-High, who in his book Primitive War (1949) viewed pre-state peoples as military inepts, their wars as harmless rituals. Even today, the canny military historian Robert L. O'Connell feels obliged, in his otherwise splendid Ride of the Second Horseman: The Birth and Death of War (Oxford, 1995), to dismiss the archaeologically documented massacres committed by Mesolithic hunter-gatherers as a historical 'false alarm.' Nonsense, concludes Lawrence H. Keeley in War Before Civilization (Oxford, 1996). He skillfully shows that pre-state peoples fought as cleverly and cruelly as we moderns, and for the same ostensibly 'rational' reasons. The 'primitives' were not innocent, nor are we moderns uniquely depraved."

Jean Bethke Elshtain, professor of social and political ethics at the University of Chicago, author of Democracy on Trial (Basic, 1995) and co-author of But Was it Just? Reflections on the Morality of the Persian Gulf War (Doubleday, 1992). Her Women and War (Chicago) was published last year in a second edition.

Elshtain also offers praise for Keeley's War Before Civilization, noting that "If war has been a pervasive feature of the human condition, we can quit dreaming about paradise and start working on politics." But if it will always be with us, what does war mean? "War calls for loyalties and sacrificial possibilities that have little field for action in everyday life," she says. "The best meditation on this is the late J. Glenn Gray's The Warriors: Reflections on Men in Battle (Harper & Row, 1977). Gray, a philosopher and World War II veteran, wrote of the soldier's astonishment and wonder at war's displays of awesome force, noting that battle may stir up a delight in destruction in men who never suspected any such thing about themselves. It isn't that most soldiers love war, Gray concludes; it is that they find in war an arena within which extraordinary possibilities for good or for ill are made manifest."

Peter Paret, professor of history at the Institute for Advanced Study, co-editor and translator of Carl von Clausewitz's On War (Princeton, 1984) and author of Imagined Battles: Reflections of War in European Art (from North Carolina).

Paret notes that war's inherent drama and violence "creates a market for a vast annual output of shallow and derivative books that often drowns out the small number of serious works in the field." Two books that stand out: "John Shy's Winding Down (Michigan, 1989), a collection of the letters of a Massachusetts soldier, Benjamin Gilbert, which offers a harsh inside view of the Continental Army in bivouac and in campaigns during the later stages of the Revolutionary War; and Christopher Browning's Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland (HarperCollins, 1993), one of the most enlightening--because circumstantial--accounts of the interaction of ideology, policy, and performance in the National Socialist way of war." Both books, says Paret, "are valuable for how they deal with the interaction of the personal and impersonal elements of war; they bring out in remarkable detail the way individuals react to the unusual world in which they now find themselves."

Dennis Showalter, professor of history at Colorado College and author of The Wars of Frederick the Great (Longman, 1996) and Tannenberg, Clash of Empires (Archon, 1991).

"The study of the history of war involves a dialectic," observes Showalter. "Soldiers mine the past for general truths; scholars focus on the unique aspects of particular conflicts. Gerhard Weinberg's World at Arms: A Global History of World War II (Cambridge, 1994) demonstrates the ideal synthesis between the two approaches. Weinberg establishes World War II as an event whose complexity denies the possibility of a single unifying theme. But if the war was sui generis, it was by no means a juxtaposition of discrete events. Weinberg's comprehensive mastery of an overwhelming body of sources enables him to present the relationships among events which occur simultaneously in different parts of the world."

Robert Cowley, editor of MHQ: The Quarterly Journal of Military History and co-editor of The Reader's Companion to Military History (forthcoming from Houghton Mifflin).

"A book that I return to constantly is the First World War diary of a nineteen-year-old British subaltern, Edwin Campion Vaughan. When the original document, long lost, first appeared in print in 1986, its U.K. publisher titled it Some Desperate Glory after a line in a Wilfred Owen poem. It fits. The diary centers on Vaughan's experience at Ypres, an ordeal, as someone wrote, played out 'on the far edge of nightmare.' Indeed, I've never seen the surreal squalor and terror of combat better rendered--as when Vaughan hears in the darkness on all sides the moans of men slowly drowning in water-filled shell holes. I came on the volume in a London bookstore; I was a book editor at the time and I made an offer to my employer: publish an American edition and I will contribute an introduction for free. I'm happy to say that they took me up on it." The American edition of Some Desperate Glory (Holt) appeared in 1988.

Victor Davis Hanson, professor of classics at UC-Fresno and author of Fields Without Dreams: Defending the Agrarian Idea (Free Press, 1996) and The Western Way of War: Infantry Battle in Classical Greece (Random House, 1989).

"After writing two of the most important studies of war ever, John Keegan visited a place where no battle has raged for more than a century. Fields of Battle: The Wars for North America (Knopf, 1996)," says Hanson, "is Keegan's unusually personal attempt to explain the American way of war. Keegan surveys a mosaic of battlefields, bases, and fortifications, and finds evidence of a reckless and dynamic American military spirit that matches the nation's unprecedented scope and space. We fight, Keegan says, the way we organize, work, and build. The author hates war, but loves America, and that admiration grows, at least in part, from his appreciation of how Americans fight so well."

Marilyn Young, professor of history at New York University, author of The Vietnam Wars, 19451990 (HarperCollins, 1991), and co-author of Flights of Fancy, Flight of Doom: KAL 007 and Soviet-American Rhetoric (University Press of America, 1988).

Young suggests a work at the border of cultural and military history. "The title of Michael Sherry's provocative book, In the Shadow of War: The U.S. Since the 1930s (Yale, 1995), is precise: this is an account of the penumbra of war, the steady, subtle, nearly invisible militarization of American society, culture, and politics over the past half-century. Sherry makes clear that militarization is not militarism, nor is it quite the same as war. But as he traces--through shifts, for example, in gender, class, and race relations--the way in which war has been central to the twentieth-century American imagination, Sherry names what we have always half-known. The effect has the force of revelation."

Richard Sennett, professor of sociology at NYU and author of Flesh and Stone: The Body and the City in Western Civilization (Norton, 1994) and The Fall of Public Man (Norton, 1992).

"Michael Mann believes men and women cannot trade, vote, or believe in God without fighting. But while other writers have explained the necessity of violence as welling up from a biological or psychological fund of aggression, Mann argues in his two-volume study The Social Sources of Power (Cambridge, 1986) that violence expresses our sense of social connection. Whether he writes about the battle of Marathon or the armies of Charles I, he is concerned with who reports to whom, the links between generals and priests, the communications between those who go to war and those who stay at home. The social fabric, for Mann, is a cloth continually torn apart and rewoven. War is the activity that tightens the weave."

Edward Luttwak, senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and author of fifteen books on war and strategy, including On the Meaning of Victory (Simon & Schuster, 1986) and Coup d'Etat: A Practical Handbook (Knopf, 1969).

"It's an easy choice," says Luttwak. "Voyage aux Sources de la Guerre (Presses Universitaires de France, 1991), by Alain Joxe, a very pure specimen of an almost extinct species: the left-wing, pro-Third World, anti-American, French intellectual. Little of this worn-out ideological baggage intrudes into Joxe's 430-page essay on the entangled motives, pseudo-functional rituals, and methods of war. Citing examples from Mesopotamia to the Roman Empire and no later, Joxe commemorates the dear departed: war demanded by territory (now badly devalued) and supplied by surplus males (now unavailable). Joxe would no doubt have preferred to write a crude antiwar tract. But he could not--in spite of himself, he was obviously and thoroughly fascinated by strategy, tactics, and logistics."

--Rick Perlstein

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