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May 2024
8min read

Military History Wishful War

A Prussian general considering his next war once said, famously, that no plan survives contact with the enemy. That is because war, far from being merely an event, is a process, a dynamic phenomenon; it never obliges those foolish enough to think they can command the unfolding of history. That is also why when statesmen plan war, idées fixes are so dangerous.

The Lost Girls mull things over in a calm moment.

Military History Wishful War

A Prussian general considering his next war once said, famously, that no plan survives contact with the enemy. That is because war, far from being merely an event, is a process, a dynamic phenomenon; it never obliges those foolish enough to think they can command the unfolding of history. That is also why when statesmen plan war, idées fixes are so dangerous. The greatest statesmen have always understood this. As for the less talented, once war has defeated their dreams, they are left only with salvaging their miscalculations.

Michael Gordon and Gen. Bernard Trainor’s book Cobra II is a case study of how a nation’s grand strategy can be corrupted by wishful thinking and the consequences of its collision with reality. In the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, long-nurtured neoconservative ambitions to transform Iraq into a democratic beach-head in the Middle East quickly overtook strategic calculations. When clear thinking was imperative, American politicians instead promoted a war against Iraq as the best defense against terrorism. All too pliable generals, thoroughly intimidated by their Secretary of Defense, obliged by concocting a breathtakingly simplistic campaign whose design was judged less by its military expertise than by how well it matched their superiors’ illusions.

Much of this we know already. Cobra II ’s contribution lies in explaining what happened as these illusions collided with the realities of war. The authors’ long experience, military knowledge, and wide access to official sources distinguish Cobra II from the many other instant histories of this war. Here the reader is in the steady hands of experts. One leaves the book wishing our strategists had listened to them instead of to their own voices.— Roger Spiller

Novel L.A.’s Scariest Product

Michael Tolkin is one of the most remarkable figures in—what exactly? In American film? Fiction? As a writer and director he has made two smart low-budget films, The Rapture (1991) and The New Age (1998), that put a deft finger on the jittery pulse of late-twentieth-century America. As a commercial screenwriter he added fresh layers to otherwise familiar sci-fi and horror material ( Deep Impact [1998] and Dawn of the Dead [2004], the latter uncredited).

Unlike every other Hollywood screenwriter who always wanted to find time for that serious novel, Tolkin has written several, most notably The Player (1988), Among the Dead (1993), and this year The Return of the Player . It’s obvious that like most directors, what Tolkin really wants to do is just write fiction. In his latest, Tolkin adds a new dimension to the L.A. novel, an intriguing genre of American literature derived from such diverse visionaries as John Fante, Raymond Chandler, and Nathanael West. Griffin Mill, the film producer protagonist of The Player , realizing he will never eat lunch in this town again, finds his true calling: politics. Unlike the current governor of California, he will someday be eligible to run for President; the possibilities are more terrifying than those of any of the films Tolkin has worked on.— Allen Barra

Graphic Novel Hard-core Victorian

In Lost Girls , the author of From Hell and V for Vendetta unites the heroines of three of the most popular works of children’s fiction and re-imagines their surreal adventures as experiences of sexual awakening.

It is May 1913, a time of rapid change. Igor Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring is about to make its debut. The First World War is not far off. Alice, Wendy, and Dorothy—of Alice in Wonderland , Peter Pan , and The Wizard of Oz , respectively —now adults, are drawn to the same hotel in Austria. There they will meet and relate their erotic adventures to one another.

Lost Girls , written by Alan Moore with art by Melinda Gebbie, is an explicitly sexual work. Some of the couplings, though quite common in the Victorian erotic fiction that is one of the novel’s inspirations, would, if real, be unacceptable to us on grounds of safety, legality, and morality. The author and artist intend to test the reader as much as titillate—no fictional characters were harmed in the making of this novel.

Even Moore calls Lost Girls pornography, but he protests too much. Pornography is cheap; it doesn’t require Moore’s immersion in literature or Gebbie’s beautifully nuanced illustrations, and its characters don’t grow, as the Lost Girls do through their storytelling. All the sex, then, must be in service to something greater than mere arousal. Moore’s argument is that the sexual imagination is part of the human psyche, and the intellectual (as opposed to the actual) exploration of the ideas it produces can never be perverse. It is in the world outside the book that perversity reigns, permanently debauched in June 1914 when Gavrilo Princip shot Franz Ferdinand and unleashed the barbarism that post-Enlightenment Europe had seemed to have vanquished. It is with this event that the novel ends. As Alice observes after a long erotic idyll has been interrupted by falling darkness, “Something quite glorious was finished with for good.” Steven Goldman

Sports History Everyone had a stake in this fight

It took David Margolick seven years to research and write his remarkable book Beyond Glory (Alfred A. Knopf), about a heavyweight fight that expired in 124 seconds. But his literary odyssey was worth it, for he has produced a gripping tale about Joe Louis’s first-round destruction of Max Schmeling on the night of June 22, 1938, at Yankee Stadium. However, this book is much more than a sports-page story, for it succeeds in re-examining the signal role that a grimly determined Louis played (much as Jackie Robinson did a decade later) in behalf of Americans with black skin.

With World War II looming, Margolick peers at all of the grotesqueries, horrors, and complications surrounding a prizefight that had millions riveted to their radios. The book reminds us that Louis, the heavyweight champion at the time, was regarded by Germany’s dictator, Adolf Hitler, as little more than subhuman. His rival, the German Schmeling, was something of a chameleon (he had a Jewish manager and a Jewish promoter) as he fulfilled the role of designated Aryan. Having been beaten by Schmeling two years earlier, Louis was supported zealously by America’s black citizenry, even as many whites shared Hitler’s racial theories. The bout, therefore, had a social and cultural subtext not often found in the world of fun and games.

Margolick reminds us of the country-wide emotional convulsion that took place as Louis pounded Schmeling to the canvas and the enormous crowd roared in amazement. Few people did not have some kind of connection with Louis’s struggle, whether they were blacks in Detroit, Jews in New York, or whites in the South. We are grateful to Margolick for recapturing an episode that has long been overlooked but is worth recalling in all its dramatic detail.— Ray Robinson

Study of the War on Terrorism THE VIEW FROM 400 B.C.

Books on American history can take many forms. Victor Davis Hanson’s A War Like No Other is about the Peloponnesian War, the contest between Athens and Sparta that lasted from 427 b.c. to 404 b.c. and ended with Athens’ decisive defeat. That war inspired Thucydides to write one of the first and still perhaps the greatest works of history. The Peloponnesian War remains the most necessary text for any realist theory of international politics. (The editor of this magazine told me that on a visit to the Pentagon a few years ago, he was intrigued to notice a copy of The Peloponnesian War within reach of almost every desk occupied by an officer advising the Joint Chiefs of Staff.)

A skeptic might have wondered whether we needed another work on the subject, but Hanson’s book has been warmly received and is selling very well indeed. Hanson has previously published a number of books on the classics, others on military history, and two collections of his columns on national security in the wake of 9/11. His Peloponnesian War is in many, many ways a war with grim relevance for Americans, and Hanson knows this and is not afraid to say so: He speaks of “shock and awe” failing in Sicily and of “coalitions of the willing,” and an early section has the frank title “Athens as America.” A long chapter, titled simply “Terror,” examines the role and effect of terror in the war Hanson brilliantly analyzes.

Many ages and minds have revisited the Peloponnesian War and found it a powerful guide to their own times; at the height of the Cold War many Americans saw themselves as Athens facing a Soviet Sparta. Now the tale of Athens as a democratic imperial state inspiring resentment, war, and large, hostile coalitions again speaks to Americans in urgent and not necessarily encouraging ways.

Hanson’s title must be a dark joke, for while Thucydides wrote that his was a war like no other, Hanson writes because he knows that it echoes as we think of our own wars. This is a very good book about one war, and about many wars, and about the American history that is being written by living generations. Fredric Smoler


Movie history resists sweeping generalizations, probably because the best films, especially the American ones, so often stand at odds with the major trends of their times. For that reason, I’ve never read a broad-gauged history of the medium that strikes me as more than a dutiful slog.

The best writing about films is critical writing, the product of a single sensibility engaging, one on one, one by one, with the films of a particular period. I’m thinking here of collections by the likes of Andrew Sarris, Graham Greene, Pare Lorentz, all of which go on giving pleasure long after most of the movies they wrote about have surrendered their claims on us. My favorite among these volumes is The Film Criticism of Otis Ferguson , a posthumous gathering of the reviews he wrote for The New Republic from 1934 through 1941 (a merchant seaman, Ferguson was killed, at 35, when his ship was bombed in the Bay of Salerno in 1942).

Ferguson was a sensible, skeptical, cheeky writer in the vernacular mode, whose style obviously influenced many who came after him (James Agee, Pauline Kael) and whose great virtue was, perhaps, a negative one: He resisted moralizing, which is the besetting sin of movie reviewers. He took movies as he found them, often discovering qualities in Hollywood products that his contemporaries did not see but which, as time passed, have become more obvious to us. The book, first published 35 years ago by a university press, remains in print, though it is listed at 1,163,839 on Amazon. But Ferguson is the great discovery in Phillip Lopate’s recent American Movie Critics anthology; Lopate reprints more pieces by Ferguson than by any other reviewer. With good reason. Anyone who can end his consideration of Citizen Kane with the remarkable (and I think prescient) comment that it made him “doubt that Orson Welles really wants to make pictures” (as opposed to striking the thwarted genius pose) remains a writer to be happily reckoned with. Richard Schickel

History Living America’s Worst Riot

The best work of American history I have read in the past year would be Barnet Schecter’s The Devil’s Own Work: The Civil War Draft Riots and the Fight to Reconstruct America (Walker & Company). Over the decades there have been a number of fine histories written about this critical moment in our nation’s past, most notably Iver Bernstein’s The New York City Draft Riots: Their Significance for American Society and Politics in the Age of the Civil War , Ernest McKay’s The Civil War and New York City , and Adrian Cook’s The Armies of the Streets: The New York City Draft Riots of 1863 , as well as Peter Quinn’s excellent historical novel Banished Children of Eve .

Yet Schecter’s book surpasses all of them not only in bringing the terrible days of the riots to life but in illustrating their full significance within the context of both New York and American history. As such it inevitably raises questions about the role of war in American society today: what sacrifices it requires and who should be shouldering the burden. The Devil’s Own Work is everything a history should be, both relevant and relentlessly cognizant of the past as a different country, written with care, passion, and expertise.— Kevin Baker

Historical Novel Patriotic Fury

The best historical fiction I’ve come across this year is a powerful first novel by Thomas Mullen, The Last Town on Earth .

Its literary ancestors are European: Defoe’s Journal of the Plague Year and Camus’s La Peste , but its subject matter is thoroughly American. The town of the title is faintly modeled on Gunnison, Colorado, one of several Western cities that in the closing months of World War I declared a self-imposed quarantine to keep out the Spanish influenza. In Mullen’s fictional version, as apparently in real life, no one is permitted to enter or pass through the city limits; anyone who leaves cannot return. Armed guards are stationed around its perimeter to discourage intruders.

But Commonwealth, as Mullen ironically calls it, is a town created in accordance with American progressive and socialist ideas, an early-twentieth-century version of those solemn utopias that have spotlighted our history since the days of the Mayflower and Brook Farm. Its fierce quarantine runs deeply counter to its founding ideals.

In the surrounding towns, moreover, Mullen has set loose the dark, intolerant, anti-German, pro-war forces of the period. It is sobering to be reminded now of the violently repressive American Protective League, actually sponsored by the Department of Justice, or the sedition acts that forbade citizens to say anything “disloyal, profane, scurrilous, or abusive” about the government or the war effort. Outside the quarantined village, as the story progresses, a superpatriotic anger begins to close in with the same deadly fury as the influenza.

This is a book about what fear (we may want to say “terror”) does to people. It is also a bleak and unforgiving mirror held up to the American character. Max Byrd

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