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The iconic images that accompany the conventional narrative of World War II depict American military service as a force for good—like soldiers handing out candy bars to children. But to interpret World War II this way, writes Elizabeth D. Samet, a professor of English at the United States Military Academy at West Point, requires “a selective memory.” Terms such as “the good war” and “the greatest generation” were shaped by “nostalgia, sentimentality, and jingoism” after the fact, causing “the deadliest conflict in human history [to become] something inherently virtuous.”

In her compelling, enlightening and elegantly written Looking for the Good War: American Amnesia and the Violent Pursuit of Happiness, Samet compares popular myths about World War II to the facts. She draws on a broad range of cultural expressions that came about during the war and the years that followed. Especially noteworthy are writings by veterans and other firsthand observers of war, which Samet uses to contrast their ambivalence at the time with how later generations understood the conflict. Legendary war correspondent Ernie Pyle, for example, found little romance in war. As he traveled with the troops in 1944, he wrote, “I am sure that in the past two years I have heard soldiers say a thousand times, ‘If only we could have created all this energy for something good.’”

There was an increase in racial violence during those years, as well. In 1942, there were more than 240 riots and other racial incidents across the United States, and segregation was still the official policy of the armed services and in many other places. “One of the chief ironies inherent in the project of bringing democracy to the rest of the world remained the signal failure to practice it at home,” Samet writes.

After the war, violent crime films were the most commercially successful stories featuring veterans. The veteran with amnesia was a staple of postwar noir, even though it didn’t reflect the reality for most veterans who were trying to readjust to civilian life. A 1947 survey of ex-service members found that more than 50% of them said the war “had left them worse off than before.”

This richly rewarding and thought-provoking book splashes World War II history across a broad canvas, with insightful discussions of the works of Homer and Shakespeare and the wisdom of Abraham Lincoln. Along the way, Samet convincingly argues that we should reflect on our current relationship to war in the light of wars past. “The way we think and talk about force will influence not only the use of American military might abroad,” she writes, “but also our response to the violence that has increasingly been used as a tool of insurrection at home.”

In her enlightening and elegantly written Looking for the Good War, Elizabeth D. Samet compares popular myths about World War II to the brutal facts of war.

In 1880, the chief of the Prussian General Staff wrote, “Eternal peace is a dream—and hardly a beautiful one. . . . War is part of the world order that God ordained.” Many have disagreed with this statement and offered various alternatives, from abolishing war completely to conducting it in a more humane way. In his enlightening and provocative Humane: How the United States Abandoned Peace and Reinvented War, Samuel Moyn, a professor of law and history at Yale, offers “an antiwar history of the laws of war” that traces America’s journey, over the last century and a half, toward the disturbing place we now find ourselves: a period of endless war.

Moyn discusses many notable individuals, causes and arguments within this history, including the founding of the Red Cross despite Leo Tolstoy’s strong opposition. The peace efforts of an Austrian noblewoman named Bertha von Suttner, especially through her book Lay Down Your Arms in 1889, stand out as well. Moyn writes, “Before World War I, no document of Western civilization did more to turn what had been a crackpot and marginal call for an end to endless war into a mainstream cause.” In 1905, von Suttner became the first woman to receive the Nobel Peace Prize.

Moyn argues that the increased use of “unmanned aerial vehicles” (armed drones) and U.S. Special Forces in the modern era makes belligerency more humane but augurs for a grim future. In Barack Obama’s Nobel Prize address in 2009, he said, “We will not eradicate violent conflict in our lifetimes.” Instead, Obama emphasized a commitment to global justice and international law and insisted on humane constraints—which included the use of drones. He sanctioned the use of armed drones more times in his first year in office than George W. Bush did in eight years. By the time Obama left office, drones had struck almost 10 times more than under his predecessor, with thousands killed. Special Forces units were engaged in fighting in at least 13 countries during the last year of Obama’s presidency, and the same approach continued during the Trump years.

This sweeping and relevant book is a vital look at how foreign policy should be conducted ethically in the face of America’s endless wars.

In his enlightening and provocative book, Samuel Moyn traces the history of America’s disturbing journey toward a period of endless war.

“We are eyeball to eyeball, and I think the other fellow just blinked,” whispered Secretary of State Dean Rusk to national security adviser McGeorge Bundy when he heard that Soviet ships carrying missiles had turned away from Cuba. It was October 24, 1962, in the midst of the most dangerous nuclear missile crisis in history. President John F. Kennedy had given the order to attack Soviet ships before he realized they’d changed course 24 hours earlier. Kennedy was greatly influenced by Barbara W. Tuchman’s The Guns of August and wanted to avoid the kind of misunderstandings, misinformation, stupidity and individual complexes of inferiority and grandeur that had led to World War I. But here was a communication problem.

The dominant narrative in the U.S. has long been that when the missiles in Cuba were removed, it was because Kennedy’s grace under pressure and skillful diplomacy had prevailed. Harvard historian Serhii Plokhy takes a different approach as he considers the many instances when both sides got things wrong in his riveting Nuclear Folly: A History of the Cuban Missile Crisis. Drawing on KGB documents, Soviet military memoirs and more American and Cuban sources, he outlines all the times catastrophe was averted.

This excellent re-creation of events begins by explaining the relationship between Cuba and the U.S. and placing the U.S.-Soviet relationship in the context of the Cold War. We see how changing details drove the daily debates as diplomatic, military and political assumptions were tested. As the meetings with his advisers dragged on for almost two weeks, Kennedy went from being a “dove” to a “reluctant hawk” and back again, always hoping for a diplomatic solution while remaining tough. Kennedy and Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev shared a fear of nuclear weapons, and neither was prepared to pay the price for a nuclear war victory. Throughout Nuclear Folly, Kennedy “plays for time” as he considers his next move in the complex and tense negotiations.

In February of 2021, the U.S. and Russia formally agreed to extend the last remaining nuclear arms treaty between their countries. This well-told account is a timely reminder of a danger we must still live with today. 

Harvard historian Serhii Plokhy considers the many instances when Cuba and the U.S. got things wrong during the Cuban missile crisis.

The mistakes in judgment that led to the United States invasion of Iraq have frequently been described as a failure of the imagination. However, as Robert Draper demonstrates in his compelling and richly documented To Start a War: How the Bush Administration Took America Into Iraq, in reality, imagination drove the policy.

Saddam Hussein denied having weapons of mass destruction, but he had used them in the past, and his government had repeatedly lied about them, so his past behavior did raise some questions. Even so, the case for Hussein possessing more of these weapons was based on badly outdated information, almost all circumstantial and often fabricated. President George W. Bush and Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz wanted, for their own reasons, to believe the weapons were there and that the U.S. should use that “fact” to oust Hussein.

CIA analysts tried to give the president what he wanted. Eventually, the president needed to know if what the CIA had was sufficient to persuade the public that the “Iraqi threat” justified war. Although Secretary of State Colin Powell thought invading Iraq was a foolish idea, when the president asked him to make the case before the United Nations, he went along.

Draper’s exhaustive research includes interviews with key figures such as Powell, Wolfowitz and Condoleezza Rice, as well as dozens of others from the CIA and the State and Defense Departments. He also makes extensive use of recently released documents to give a vivid picture of how events unfolded. There really was not a process, Draper reveals. For example, there was no plan for what to do following a military victory. Meanwhile, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld seemed to give more importance to finding fault with other government agencies and micromanaging his department than to urgent follow-through. Vice President Dick Cheney was allowed to make misleading or false public statements without correction. 

As we continue to live through the ripple effects of this momentous decision in American foreign policy, Draper’s revelatory account deserves a wide readership. 

The mistakes in judgment that led to the United States invasion of Iraq have frequently been described as a failure of the imagination. However, as Robert Draper demonstrates in his compelling and richly documented To Start a War: How the Bush Administration Took America Into Iraq, in reality, imagination drove the policy. Saddam Hussein denied […]

Games can be deadly serious—ask any soccer parent—but we generally see them as child’s play. It is therefore surprising that in war, where the stakes are the absolute highest, games play an essential role. War games allow armies to test officers’ strategies and decision-making in a risk-free environment, and lessons learned on the game board are frequently transferred to the battlefield. One man who thoroughly grasped this idea was Captain Gilbert Roberts, who, along with his team of eight officers from the Women’s Royal Naval Service (WRNS, popularly known as the Wrens), devised a game that arguably changed the course of World War II. In A Game of Birds and Wolves, Simon Parkin tells this remarkable and little-known story.

In 1941, Great Britain was in danger of being starved of food and supplies by U-boat attacks. Roberts realized that, by simulating the conditions of war as closely as possible on an auditorium-sized game board, he could devise countermeasures to the tactics used by U-boat captains. He could also train submarine hunters without the risk of failure. Ultimately, the men who played the game used their knowledge to defeat the U-boat fleet in the decisive Battle of Birds and Wolves. Without the Wrens, who not only ran the games but also helped design new scenarios and countermeasures, none of this would have happened.

Like a well-designed game, A Game of Birds and Wolves is fun, informative and intense. Parkin naturally focuses much of his attention on Roberts, whose story of triumph over adversity and skepticism is a great read. But the book really shines when Parkin reclaims the history of the Wrens. Although women played a vital role in the war, their work was often undervalued, and much of this history was lost or destroyed. The Wrens, working with Roberts, were instrumental to an Allied victory, but few among us know what we owe to them. 

Parkin’s respect and affection for these women is apparent on every page, and his extensive research and excellent storytelling go a long way toward paying that debt.

Games can be deadly serious—ask any soccer parent—but we generally see them as child’s play. It is therefore surprising that in war, where the stakes are the absolute highest, games play an essential role. War games allow armies to test officers’ strategies and decision-making in a risk-free environment, and lessons learned on the game board […]

The Friend by Sigrid Nunez
TOP PICK
Winner of the National Book Award for Fiction, Sigrid Nunez’s The Friend focuses on the powerful connection between a grieving woman and her dog. The unnamed female narrator inherits Apollo, a 180-pound Great Dane, from a late professor friend who committed suicide. As she comes to grips with her friend’s death, the narrator finds herself increasingly concerned for Apollo, who is also clearly mourning his owner. Because pets aren’t allowed in her apartment building, the narrator refuses to leave him alone for extended stretches of time. Although her concern for him keeps her at home—and causes her friends to question her emotional well-being—the relationship revitalizes both woman and dog. Nunez delivers a compassionate, sharply realized study of one woman’s experience with grief, and she does so without lapsing into sentimentality. The Friend is an unforgettable exploration of loss, healing and canine love.


That Kind of Mother by Rumaan Alam
Affluent white couple Rebecca and Christopher decide to adopt the infant son of their late nanny, Priscilla, who was black. Alam’s portrayal of the fraught nature of contemporary race relations rings true in this empathetic novel.


Eat the Apple by Matt Young
In his debut memoir, Young uses a wide range of narrative tones and techniques to tell the story of his years as a Marine, and how unprepared he was for the horrors that awaited him in Iraq.


Aetherial Worlds by Tatyana Tolstaya
Fantasy and reality intermingle in these compelling short stories, which have earned Tolstaya comparisons to Gogol and Chekhov.


The Map of Salt and Stars by Jennifer Zeynab Joukhadar
Nour’s family relocates to Syria when her father dies, but war forces them into exile. Her story is linked with that of a 12th-century girl who also fled her home in this powerful novel of the refugee experience.

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