Saturday, December 27, 2008

The Ways of War in the Penny Press!

Our last look at the Penny Press in 2008 features two accounts of the shot and fray of war - and some of the perils attendant in writing about it!

In the 18 December London Review of Books, Thomas Laqueur turns in a long and extremely thoughtful review of Drew Gilpin Faust's This Republic of Sorrow and Mark Neely's The Civil War and the Limits of Destruction. Faust's book he loves ("a spectacularly good book," which sounds a little like a contradiction), and Neely's book frustrates him with its central tenet that the American Civil War was neither so bloody nor so destructive as 150 years of historians have rejoiced in saying it was.

I thought Faust's universally-praised book was almost hysterically overwrought, and I thought Neely's book was simply dull - you would never read a long, detailed exegesis of either one of them on Stevereads (much less Open Letters). But Laqueur is always worth reading, even when I don't agree that his subjects are worth reviewing. In this case I think he might be a little too hard on Neely, taking him to task for relativizing what he never meant to belittle. For instance, Laqueur has little patience with Neely's subtraction from the overall mortality of the Civil War the many thousands of deaths from infection and disease, although it's hard not to agree with a reviewer when he's making his points so calmly and eloquently:

The 225,000 Union and 194,000 Confederate soldiers who died from disease were just as dead as their comrades. They too left survivors bereft; they too filled graves, probably in disproportionate numbers because their bodies were more easily identified and recovered. More important, death from disease or exposure is not an act of God but a real consequence of the violence of war. It would be very odd to exclude those who died of cold and hunger in Napoleon's or Hitler's Russian campaigns if one were trying to quantify their human cost.

Likewise, over in the 12 December TLS, W. V. Harris reviews two volumes in the Cambridge History of Greek and Roman Warfare series - Volume One, on Greece and the Rise of Rome, and Volume Two, on Rome from the Late Republic to the Late Empire. Here, also, there's disparity and a little literary bloodletting (this being the TLS, the latter is significantly less delicate than in other review organs).

Some of Harris' observations are a little wobbly, as in his lengthiest digression:

At the Battle of Pydna, for instance, the commander Aemilius Paullus is said to have thrown a precious Roman standard in among the Macedonian enemy, which in effect obliged the legionaries under Paullus' command to drive the enemy back in order to retrieve it. .... Unimaginable in a modern army, this sort of behaviour was apparently quite common in Republican Rome.

Not so common: military commanders who tried such melodramatic stunts risked a great deal, and certainly a general as experienced as this particular Aemilius Paullus never actually did it. But I'd argue that it isn't so unthinkable in a modern army, or at least its modern equivalent isn't. And that equivalent wouldn't be 'throwing a standard in among the enemy, thereby forcing your men to more greatly endanger themselves to retrieve it' but rather 'imitating Alexander the Great' - who pulled that stunt (and the much riskier one of the personally leaping into the press of his enemies himself, thereby forcing his men to rescue not just the standard but the standard-bearer) quite often. And if we generalize that to 'imitate the great stories of what battlefield courage is supposed to be,' the thing becomes easily imaginable, even in modern-moment Iraq.

But that's a quibble, and it shouldn't keep us from Harris' own bloodletting, this time in the form of a classic lightning-quick TLS knife-thrust. He's running down the various merits of some of the Roman volume's better essays when the knife suddenly goes in:

At the other extreme is a chapter on Rome's early international relations marked by quite breathtaking vapidity.

Eeep. Perhaps fortunately for all involved, the writer of that chapter isn't named. The morbidly curious will have to Google it on their own.

These two forays into military history and the reviewing of military history form our last look at the Penny Press in 2008. It hasn't exactly been a banner year for periodical reading. Harper's has been almost relentlessly inconsequential; GQ and Esquire have amped up their gadget-and-g-spot coverage, at the expense of anything else (ditto Men's Journal and Outside); Vanity Fair has become thinner and slighter; The New Republic has become shriller; The New York Review of Books has become almost distractingly more political; worst of all, The Atlantic's move and recent redesign have combined seriously to undercut its intellectual heft.

Fortunately, the mighty TLS remains the same. And Open Letters keeps getting better and better. So there's hope, in the Penny Press.


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