On War: The Best Military Histories, by Rick Atkinson, Carlo D’Este, Max Hastings, James M. McPherson, Allen R. Millett, Tim O’Brien, and Gerhard L. Weinberg
Calling this book the best military histories in its subtitle is a bit of a stretch. I can think of quite a few military history books that I have read and reviewed that are better, for example, than Tim O’Brien’s essay on “true” military stories, with its crudity and tedious repetitiousness, although many of the contents of the book are excellent, if somewhat familiar in their contents. The book itself comes with a clear intent, in that the Pritzker Military Museum & Library gives out awards for lifetime achievement to military historians, encouraging those who seek to educate our civilian populace about military matters and so to bridge the gap between military and civilian within contemporary society. The curators of that museum and library rightly and presciently recognize the importance for a nation that depends on citizen soldiers to be knowledgeable and aware of military matters , and for the most part, this book delivers, even if one wishes for more material by some of the authors, different material from others, and less or no material from still others, making this compilation a bit of a mixed bag.
In terms of its contents, the book consists of excerpts from the military history writing of seven esteemed men, arranged in no particular logical or chronological order. The book is introduced by retired Col. Pritzker himself, responsible for the library and museum named modestly after himself. After this comes an excellent excerpt, “We Are All Americans,” from James McPherson’s classic one-volume historical work on the Civil War: Battle Cry Of Freedom. Following this comes an excellent discussion of amphibious warfare doctrine and practice in the interwar period for the United States, Japan, and the United Kingdom from noted historian Allan R. Millett that gives plenty of praise and credit to the often-neglected Marine officer Ellis . The third excerpt consists of two of the eight biographical sketches from Gerhard L. Weinberg’s book Visions Of Victory on Adolf Hitler and Franklin D. Roosevelt. The fourth excerpt, the prologue of Rick Atkinson’s An Army At Dawn, provides a compelling discussion of the origin of the invasion of North Africa and some justification for it. Next comes Carlo D’Este’s sketch on “Patton’s Finest Hour” during the Battle of the Bulge, from his biography of that notable military leader. After this comes Max Hastings’ rather biting and gloomy discussion of the retreat of the small British Expeditionary Force during the early days of World War I in his book Catastrophe 1914: Europe Goes To War. The book closes with the tedious and mendacious excerpt “How To Tell A True War Story” from one of his novels on the Vietnam War, taking up about 240 pages in a book that starts strongly and then ends somewhat weakly.
What can we learn about military history from the excerpts included here? For one, the selections are heavily skewed—three of the essays deal with World War II, and one of them about the interwar period with a heavy amount of foreshadowing about World War II. That leaves only one essay each to deal with the Civil War, World War I, and Vietnam. It would likely be impossible for seven small essays, averaging about 30 pages apiece, to give a representative sample of the important military historical works that Americans ought to make themselves familiar with, but this book’s balance is particularly skewed. That said, the excerpts do manage to provide balance in another way, blending biographical history and conventional battle studies with more technical analyses that examine the relationship between war and society, and war and literature. At least in this way the book shows the diversity of the field of military history for those of us who read and write for the sorts of audiences who would appreciate this book at least in part, and seek to make themselves familiar with at least a few of the authors in greater detail. Even if some of the books cited here are nowhere close to the best works on war that can be found, the book does fulfill its purpose of providing concise military education as well as the encouragement to read more from these historians and more about military history in general, and that is a worthwhile achievement.
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