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In the Book Review

In which we have a look at this week's New York Times Book Review.

Excuse me? It's the week before Christmas. Is that an appropriate time for a "Books on War" issue?

It would seem that the purpose of a "Books on War" issue would be to capture the interest of readers who do not otherwise focus on military history. War is as human an activity as there is, unfortunately, but military history (not that I've read a great deal) seems either dishonest ("war is grand") or detached. We may like detachment in a surgeon at the operating table, but writing about "armies" is creepy: we are not ants. That's why writing about war has to be special in order to hold the general reader's attention.

Fiction & Poetry

On the cover this week, we have Brad Leithauser's very good review of Robert Fagles's new translation of Virgil's Aeneid. A fine poet himself, Mr Leithauser notes that the translator's most fundamental choice is between iambic pentameter, the standard English long line, or the Latin hexameter; he also tells us that Mr Fagles's has opted for "free verse, with the ghost of hexameter serving as loose armature. Having compared a few passages from the new book and from the last important translation, by Robert Fitzgerald, in 1983, Mr Leithauser concludes,

Yet if the blazing moments belong to Fitzgerald, there's a capaciousness to Fagles's line well suited to this fast story's ebb and flow. Aeneas is a storm-tossed man - the epic opens with shipwreck on the coast of Africa - and Fagles renders the pilgrimage in cadences that are encompassing without feeling cluttered.

(Mr Leithauser neglects to advise readers to read the epic aloud, so I shall do so.)

This week's lone novel is Jane Kuntz's translation of Lydie Salvayre's "deliciously dark little desk drama," Everyday Life. Julia Scheeres calls it a "commentary on today's cubicle culture, where employees are warehoused in such tight quarters that any hiring or firing throw the entire office ecosystem out of whack." (So that's what they mean by "NSFW.")


Rebecca Newberger Goldstein spends a good deal of her long review of Robert D Richardson's William James: In the Maelstrom of American Modernism: A Biography on storytelling, but eventually she engages with the biography and finds it wanting.

It is in using the life to grasp the philosophy that Richardson's book disappoints. Too often the philosophical positions themselves come out wrong, the emphasis cockeyed, the subtlety subtly missed.

Curiously, the reviewer's examples inclined me to side with Mr Richardson. There is no getting round the fact that James was a profoundly complicated man whose longing to be manly as well as lucid kept him from mastering the fashion of his own thought as well as his brother Henry mastered his.

Tom Shone writes an unhelpful review of John Sutherland's How to Read a Novel: A User's Guide. He does not say so, but Mr Sutherland is a dean of Trollope studies, and apparently a very gentlemanly gentleman. Perhaps it would have been wiser to assign his book to someone who did not go by a nickname. In any case, it is clear that Mr Shone is not temperamentally inclined to like, or even to try to understand, How to Read a Novel. This becomes crystal clear at the end, when he refers reader to the writings of Nick Hornby (another nickname). Mr Sutherland's book may be as unprepossessing as Mr Shone claims it is, but his claims don't sound very reliable.


Fareed Zakaria writes almost sheepishly about War By Other Means: An Insider's Account, by John Woo, and Before the Next Attack: Preserving Civil Liberties, by Bruce Ackerman, as if trying be "fair and balanced" about two dangerous books. The writers under review believe that the United States, as presently constituted, cannot deal with the threat of terror, and both condone a presidency untrammeled by the claims of civil rights. It takes Mr Zakaria quite a while to widen the scope of the discussion to include the "weapons" of diplomacy and foreign aid.

The United States is fighting a strange war indeed, one that is, in some fundamental ways, an extended campaign of public diplomacy against ideologies of extremism and violence. This campaign is not simply a matter of battling on the air waves with Al Jazeera across the Arab world. It is a matter of reaching into communities. The best sources of intelligence on jihadi cells have tended to come from within localities and neighborhoods. This information has probably been more useful than any we have obtained from waterboarding or sleep deprivation.

The thinking in this passage ought to have informed every sentence of the review, but in fact it appears after Mr Yoo and Mr Ackerman have been permitted to state their cases - permission that implicitly validates their shrunken, fearful points of view.

I have read another, longer review of Max Boot's War Made New: Technology, Warfare, and the Course of History, 1500 to Today, and, like Josiah Bunting's here, it suggested the book in question is excessively schematized, history cut to fit a preconceived pattern. Mr Bunting states Mr Boot's thesis at the beginning of the review and follows with a book report that makes it fairly clear that Mr Boot has written a book in which only generals are entitled to respect as human beings.

Dangerous Nation, by Robert Kagan, gets a cagey review from Geoffrey Wheatcroft. Mr Kagan's thesis is that interventionism of the sort that we have engaged in in Iraq is as American as George Washington, if not apple pie. If the thesis was ever credible, that moment has passed, as Mr Wheatcroft all-too-gently hints. "Will it be surprising if America soon, and at least for a time, turns inward and aloof once more?" Less theoretical and correspondingly more realistic is Imperial Life in the Emerald City: Inside Iraq's Green Zone, by Rajiv Chandrasekaran - at least on the evidence of Michael Goldfarb's mordantly amusing review.

On page after page, Chandrasekaran details other projects of the CPA's bright young Republican ideologues - like modernizing the Baghdad stock exchange, or quickly privatizing every service that had previously been provided by the state. Some of these ideas would have been laudable if they were being planned for a country with functioning power and water supplies, and that wasn't tottering on the brink of anarchy.

But how could these young Americans have known what life was like for ordinary Iraqis since they never left the Green Zone? Instead, they turned the place into something like a college campus. After a hard day of dreaming up increasingly improbable projects, the kids did what kids do - headed for the bar and looked for a hookup. As for the Iraqis, they were conspicuous by their absence.

Presiding over this unreal world was the American viceroy, L Paul Bremer III, who comes across in this book as a man who has read one CEO memoir too many, a man who knew his own mind and would not have his decisions changed by the inconvenient reality of Iraqi life outside the blast barriers. All of this would be funny in a Joseph Heller kind of way if tens of thousands or Iraqis and thousands of American soldiers weren't to die because of the decisions made by the CPA, the Pentagon and the White House.

Mark Atwood Lawrence gives an interested but ultimately inconclusive review to Khrushchev's Cold War: The Inside Story of an American Adversary, by Aleksandr Fursenko and Timothy Naftali. Mr Lawrence notes that the book is "deeply researched," but he complains that "Fursenko and Naftali never really say whether the Americans, if they had recognized Khrushchev's basic interest in peace, might have been able to strike a deal to end the cold war - or at least ease it drastically." Evan Thomas, in contrast, praises Ian W Toll, author of Six Frigates: The Epic History of the Founding of the US Navy, for his "grasp of the human dimension of his subject, often obscured in the dry tomes of naval historians."

Historian Taner Akcam can't be planning a visit to his native Turkey anytime soon, having just published A Shameful Act: The Armenian Genocide and the Question of Turkish Responsibility. According to reviewer Gary J Bass, "This dense, measured and footnote-heavy book poses a stern challenge to modern Turkish polemicists, and if there is any response to be made, it can be done only with additional primary research in the archival records."

Finally, there is Barry Gewen's War Chronicle.

Finding the Target: The Transformation of American Military Policy, by Frederick W Kagan. "Kagan contends that the American military successfully transformed itself after the humiliation of Vietnam with the all-volunteer Army and upgradings of personnel and weapons, but then fell captive to dreams of dominance through technology alone, losing sight of the human component of warfare."

The French and Indian War: Deciding the Fate of North America, by Walter Borneman. "It will not displace Fred Anderson's sweeping and magisterial Crucible of War, but as its subtitle suggests, it demonstrates just how important the war was in configuring the world we inhabit today."

Endgame in the Balkans: Regime Change, European Style, by Elizabeth Pond. "Currently a correspondent for The Washington Quarterly, Pond could never been described as a stylist, yet she is extraordinarily knowledgeable, and after a while the sheer volume of her information begins to cast a hypnotic spell."

The Occupation, by Patrick Cockburn. "He describes, for instance, a conference in London in 2002 for liberal, secular Iraqi exiles, the kind of people Washington hoped would be the country's future leaders. But very few of them wee smoking, even though tobacco is a way of life in Iraq. This, Cockburn says, revealed how out of touch the exiles were.

¶  Annihilation From Within: The Ultimate Threat to Nations, by Fred Charles Iklé. "... in many ways a deeply eccentric, and flawed, book. ... But his warnings about the dangerous conjunction of nuclear proliferation and terrorism are unassailable and point to a future much like the present."

In lieu of an Essay, ten writers on war, ranging from Barbara Ehrenreich to Anthony Swofford, pick two indispensable books on the subject, ranging from Thucydides to (Margaret) Mitchell.


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