Reviews > Culture

Books of war

Culture

Issue: "Mourning has broken," Sept. 29, 2001
Scoring system:10 points for first place, 9 for second, down to 1 for tenth, on the lists of the American Booksellers Association (independent, sometimes highbrow stores), The New York Times (4,000 bookstores, plus wholesalers), USA Today (3,000 large-inventory bookstores), and Amazon.com (web purchases).
1
The Art of War
Sun Tzu (c.450-220 b.c.)
CONTENT
A little treatise on the principles of war, written over 2,000 years ago and hugely influential since then, especially among Chinese, Japanese, Vietnamese army officers, and American businessmen.

GIST
In short, almost proverbial form, Sun Tzu sets out 13 practical chapters-with advice for deciding when to fight and when to run, and how to maneuver armies, use spies, and predict victory. He emphasizes the importance of deception and surprise, and warns: "A speedy victory is the main object in war. If this is long in coming, weapons are blunted and morale depressed."

2
War And Peace
Leo Tolstoy (1869)
PLOT
In this sweeping story of the Czarist aristocracy set against the backdrop of the Napoleonic wars, France invades Russia and life goes on.

GIST
War and Peace is famous for its size but also for the grandeur of its author's vision. Tolstoy takes the reader from scenes of family life and fashionable soirees to horrific scenes of battle carnage and starvation; he covers petty jealousies and brings in broad essays on history. Tolstoy's characters find significance in family life, not in war, where they are but fodder for the impersonal forces that determine the course of history.

3
Personal Memoirs
U.S. Grant (1885-1886)
CONTENT
Grant wrote in strong, clear prose the story of his life and battles, producing one of the greatest of military memoirs.

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GIST
Fighting cancer and family financial ruin-he had been defrauded of his estate-Grant wrote until the last month of his life in order to leave a legacy for his family and the nation; Mark Twain was his publisher. Facing death, he wrote often of death, seeing the Civil War as tragic but not aimless, for "one side or the other had to yield principles they deemed dearer than life before it could be brought to an end."

4
The Red Badge of Courage
Stephen Crane (1895)
PLOT
A young man enlists in the Union army hoping to earn his place among the glorious heroes of history.

GIST
Told through the eyes of Henry Fleming, the story leads the reader to perceive only what Henry sees, smells, and feels. Crane does not portray the reasons for the war or the strategic importance of the battle in which Henry fights. Crane does recreate well the experience of battle: the heat of the rifle barrel, the smell of the powder, the distortion of senses. Considered by some to be an anti-war novel, the book's conclusion is that Henry not only survives war, it makes him a man.

5
All Quiet on the Western Front
Erich Maria Remarque (1929)
PLOT
Cajoled into World War I service by the German establishment and a teacher who breathes fire from his safe perch, a group of young soldiers experience disaster first-hand.

GIST
In a depressing novel about the futility of war, Remarque uses a first-person narrative to tell Paul Baumer's story of indignity, brutality, and deprivation. The young friends quickly realize they are fighting a stupid war and are led by stupid people. They lose all respect for authority, and, as the war grinds on, they die off one by one until none is left. There are no atheists in these foxholes, only despondent nihilists.

IN THE SPOTLIGHT
The late Lee Atwater read Sun Tzu's The Art of War and applied its teaching to politics. But it appears that Congress over the past several decades may have forgotten some of the gritty realities found in this ancient treatise. On the subject of spying (which congressional action has hampered), Sun Tzu says, "what enables the wise sovereign and the good general to strike and conquer, and achieve things beyond the reach of ordinary men, is foreknowledge." Foreknowledge can't come from spirits or experience: "Hence the use of spies, of whom there are five classes: (1) local spies; (2) inward spies; (3) converted spies; (4) doomed spies; (5) surviving spies." Sun Tzu goes on to define the various types, and gives warnings and advice about using them. "Be subtle! be subtle! and use your spies for every kind of business.... Whether the object be to crush an army, to storm a city, or to assassinate an individual, it is always necessary to begin by finding out the names of the attendants, the aides-de-camp, and doorkeepers and sentries of the general in command. Our spies must be commissioned to ascertain these." Converted spies are especially important, which means dealing with some unsavory characters.

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