Friday, October 11, 2013

Military history, sharp thinking, and good writing

I expect I'll like Eliot A. Cohen's Supreme Command: Soldiers, Statesmen And Leadership In Wartime almost as much as I liked Thomas E. Ricks' The Generals, and not just because I came to Cohen through Ricks' approving citations.

The two share a talent for incisive analysis and clear, elegant writing. That each writes about a subject of continuing vital and contemporary interest is a bonus. (In Ricks' case, the subject is the rise and precipitous decline in American military leadership from World War II to Iraq and Afghanistan. In Cohen's case, the subject is the military leadership of the civilian heads of state Lincoln, Clemenceau, Churchill, and Ben-Gurion during wartime.)

I'm going to like Cohen because he attacks the commonplace that a civilian leader's job during wartime is to get out of the military's way, and I'm predisposed to like attacks on commonplaces. Cohen's introductory chapters range well beyond his specialty (He's a professor of strategic studies). His discussion of the pervasiveness with which the idea of military supremacy in wartime has penetrated popular culture, for example, includes a slyly funny putdown of the movie Independence Day.

I'd recommend these books for readers interested in current affairs, military history, and world politics. More to the point, I recommend them to that tiny minority to whom good writing and clear argument matter.

(If recent discussion here at Detectives Beyond Borders has got away from crime fiction, know that it was a short story by Martin Limón, crime fiction all the way, that first got me thinking about military leadership and the consequences of leadership policies whose goals are to protect the leaders.)

© Peter Rozovsky 2013

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Anonymous Ben Sobieck said...

Does this talk about Churchill before World War II? History has a way of forgetting the Gallipoli disaster of World War I as the crucible from which the World War II Churchill was forged. Sometimes it's as if he came out of nowhere once World War II started.

October 11, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I don't know; I've only read the book's opening chapters, in which the authors states his thesis clearly and concisely.

The book is short, so I suspect it's sparing on details before the main wartime periods of each of its four major figures. But Cohen does make the point the Churchill, Clemenceau, and Ben-Gurion assumed "high command" at an advances age, so I suspect that he will focus not on how leaders exercise high civil power, but on how they exercise the highest civil power with respect to their countries' military leadership.

October 11, 2013  
Blogger Fred said...


The book by Cohen sounds interesting. Thanks for posting the review. I haven't read anything that could remotely be considered history (except of course for historical mysteries) in a long time. Perhaps it's time to dip a toe back into the pool.

October 11, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Fred, you might also try Thomas Ricks' superb book. I like to my posts about that book in the body of this post. One exciting feature of both books is that they got me thinking about area of experience well beyond the books' subjects.

October 11, 2013  
Blogger Dana King said...

Adding this to the TBR list; Ricks is already there.

You make a point here too many people overlook: elegant and entertaining writing have as much place in non-fiction as in fiction, possibly even more. In fiction the author can adjust his story to keep the reader engaged. A non-fiction writer must sometimes navigate the reader through some difficult territory. A lot of people can do research; the truly great can write about it in such a manner you don't need a degree in the topic to understand their conclusions.

October 11, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Dana, Ricks especially impressed me because he's a reporter. Reporters, surprisingly enough, often strain too hard for effect and "color." Ricks does not do this. At the same time, he brings the passion of a good reporter to his job. The zest with which he expresses his opinions--which he always backs up with facts--is impressive.

I am just grateful for clear, elegant writing anywhere I can find it. I'll tell you more after I retire.

For another superbly written book of history by a journalist, try A Savage War of Peace by Alistair Horne, about the Franco-Algerian War.

October 11, 2013  

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