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All Military History Coverage

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The bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki did not immediately bring World War II to an end. Bestselling author Evan Thomas (Ike’s Bluff) explains why in his superbly crafted military and diplomatic history Road to Surrender: Three Men and the Countdown to the End of World War II. “This book is a narrative of how the most destructive war in history ended—and very nearly did not,” he writes. “It asks what it was like to be one of the decent, imperfect people who made the decision to use a frighteningly powerful new weapon.” 

The three main figures, two American and one Japanese, were quite different from one another. The only thing they had in common was a desire to end the war. Henry L. Stimson, a Republican lawyer from New York, had been the secretary of state for Herbert Hoover and the secretary of war for William Howard Taft, Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Harry Truman. His responsibilities included making decisions about the use of the atomic bomb. Thomas writes that Stimson “embodied and preached a philosophy that would make the United States, for all its flaws, the world’s essential nation: the belief that American foreign policy . . . should balance humanitarian and ethical values with cold-eyed power used in the national interest.”

The other American was General Carl “Tooey” Spaatz, a West Point graduate who had been commander of strategic bombing in Europe before he was assigned the same responsibility in the Pacific. He was initially opposed to using the atomic bomb, but when the Japanese military continued to resist surrendering, he recommended dropping a third atomic bomb on Tokyo. Throughout his career, he remained deeply disturbed about the devastation and loss of life caused by these dreadful bombs.

The third man, career diplomat Shigenori Togo, became Japan’s foreign minister in 1941 and was very much against going to war with the United States. He left office for several years but returned in 1945 to take on a virtually impossible task: to push his military-led government toward surrender. As Thomas describes Japan’s predicament in 1945, “Some of the men now running the Japanese government want to bring the war to an end, but in a society where even the word surrender is forbidden, they cannot admit it.”

Whether the A-bomb should have been used at all remains a controversial subject. Thomas effectively shows, with meticulous scholarship, that even after two atomic bombs had been dropped, the most influential military leaders in Japan insisted on continuing to fight. “Had Japan fought on,” he writes, “likely many more people would have died, possibly millions more, in Asia as well as Japan.”

Drawing on a wide range of sources, including the primary figures’ diaries, Thomas makes the period come vividly alive. This moving account of three men of peace who had to make life or death decisions will interest history lovers everywhere.

Contrary to popular belief, the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki did not immediately bring World War II to an end. In his new book, Evan Thomas explains why.
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Since 1973, when President Richard Nixon and Congress created the all-volunteer force as an alternative to conscripted military service, there has been a division between the American public and the military. Less than one-half of 1% of our population currently serves on active duty. And as the public has watched the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq continue on for years after 9/11, they have become more uncertain than ever about U.S. missions.

But active duty and retired military personnel have become more uncertain too. In an enlightening new book, Paths of Dissent: Soldiers Speak Out Against America’s Misguided Wars, a diverse group of veterans who volunteered and served in those wars tell us what they saw, did and learned. In these original essays, selected by co-editors Andrew Bacevich and Daniel A. Sjursen for their candor and eloquence, the contributors share their reasons for deciding to serve, why they became disillusioned and why they now feel the need to speak out about “military policies that they deem ill advised, illegal, or morally unconscionable.”

Erik Edstrom, a West Point graduate, was an infantry platoon leader in Afghanistan, where he “saw the systematic dehumanization and devaluation of Afghan lives on a regular basis. . . . It’s one of America’s deepest ironies: in efforts to ‘prevent terrorism’ in our country, we commit far larger acts of terrorism elsewhere,” he writes. Joy Damiani was an enlisted public affairs specialist who served two tours in Iraq. “According to the Army’s official narrative,” she writes, “the war was always in the process of being won. There were never any mistakes, never any defeats, and certainly never any failures.” Buddhika Jayamaha was an airborne infantryman in Iraq. He and many others “felt that the extreme hubris of American politicians and the commentariat was responsible for the mess in Iraq.”

Bacevich, who served for 23 years in the Army, including in Vietnam, writes that “genuine military dissent is patriotic.” Any citizen who wants to better understand our country’s current military entrapments will want to read this book.

In 17 original essays, U.S. veterans share their reasons for deciding to serve, why they became disillusioned with the military and why they now feel the need to speak out against its misguided policies.
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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.
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Veterans Day, November 11, began as Armistice Day—the day on which World War I, or The Great War as it was then known, came to a messy, awkward close. But as later wars became more significant to America, Armistice Day changed to Veterans Day as a way to celebrate all veterans of conflicts past and present. In keeping with that goal, five excellent new books offer fresh perspectives on the American military experience.

A grandfather’s legacy
James Carl Nelson’s The Remains of Company D: A Story of the Great War began as a quest to uncover the past of one American veteran of that war—Nelson’s grandfather, a taciturn Swedish immigrant named Jon Nilsson. He came to America only to be drafted by his newfound nation and sent back across the ocean to fight on the very continent he had left behind. Knowing only that his grandfather had been wounded by a German machine gun in the battle of Soisson, Nelson was inspired to discover his story, as well as the story of the other men who found themselves running into the German lines on that fateful July day. The result is a moving account of young men swept into a war few truly understood, who nevertheless found exceptional courage amid horrors they never imagined. Using personal accounts derived from journals and letters of the men and their families—many who never knew their sons’ and husbands’ final fates—Nelson recreates their experiences in vivid detail. The Remains of Company D immerses the reader in the world of the doughboys, helping us see a war of dwindling memory through the eyes of those who lived—and died—while waging it.

From Pusan to Inchon
Another war even less well-known to modern readers is nevertheless considerably closer in time—the Korean War, with origins almost as muddled as that of World War I. The Darkest Summer: Pusan and Inchon 1950: The Battles that Saved Korea—and the Marines—From Extinction, by Bill Sloan, recounts the origins and first year of what almost became America’s greatest military disaster. As might be expected from the subtitle, Sloan focuses heavily on the contribution of the Marine Corps, which prior to the Korean conflict was in danger of being reduced to little more than a ceremonial guard. In Korea, the Marine Corps proved itself to be America’s only truly battle-ready force in the wake of drastic post-WWII military cuts. Sloan deftly combines a thorough explanation of the causes and politics behind the Korean War with riveting descriptions of the battles, from the near rout as North Korean forces pushed the woefully ill-equipped and under-trained U.S. Eighth Army almost into the sea at Pusan, to the stunning reversal at Inchon that handed the U.S. its greatest military triumph since D-Day—only to be reversed yet again when China poured human wave attacks across the Yalu River. Sloan’s account ends there—but one hopes he will pick up the story once more. In era when the world is once again facing strategic challenges in Korea, The Darkest Summer is a compelling read and a timely reminder of a “forgotten war.”

New appraisals
Like the veterans of World War I, the men and women of World War II are slowly leaving us behind, and with them goes the living memory of their deeds. Antony Beevor’s D-Day: The Battle for Normandy is a powerful reminder of just how great their accomplishments were. Beginning with the build-up to invasion, Beevor follows the Allied forces through the greatest amphibious landing in history, across the hedgerows of France and through the glorious entry into Paris. From the upper-level planning of generals to the desperate fights of the men themselves, Beevor skillfully covers the full scope of the summer offensive that liberated France and signaled the inevitable end of Hitler and the Third Reich. Whether you’re familiar with the names and events of 1944 or curious to learn more, Beevor’s D-Day is a comprehensive and thoroughly engaging journey back through time.

Equally engaging is John Keegan’s The American Civil War: A Military History. The master of military history sets his pen to what may be the most seminal war of the American experience, the war that remains the bloodiest conflict and the most indelible in the American historical consciousness. Whereas many books share the story and causes of the war, or discuss the personalities, politics and battles, Keegan examines how and why the war unfolded as it did—both the deliberate strategy-making and the almost accidental developments brought about by such disparate concerns as geography and social politics. The result is a highly readable overview of the war that goes far beyond merely describing who fought where. Through Keegan’s book, one gains an understanding of why the battles happened as they did, where they did, and how they fit into the whole story of the war and its resulting influence on our nation. Both the casual reader and the Civil War buff will find much to appreciate in this excellent work.

Final rest
Lastly, we come to a book about a place that is unquestionably the most sacred military site in the national psyche. No battle was ever fought there. It saw no triumph of arms, no treaty, no surrender, no speech of resounding note—but its importance to the nation and the nation’s military is unequaled, because it is the final resting place of our most honored dead. Robert M. Poole’s On Hallowed Ground: The Story of Arlington National Cemetery explores the history of the vaunted cemetery across the Potomac from Washington, D.C., and the uniquely American approach to honoring our military heroes. What began as a way to punish Robert E. Lee by seizing his Arlington, Virginia estate and rendering it “inhospitable” for his return, turned into one of the greatest sources of healing for a grieving, divided nation. It also inspired an unparalleled commitment by the country to find, identify (if possible) and, if requested by the family, bring home with honor the body of every American service person who died in battle, regardless of where or when. Poole’s book is both sobering and inspiring as it explores the history of this remarkable tradition and the quietly majestic site to which many of those men and women have returned. As we celebrate the living on Veterans Day, On Hallowed Ground is a beautiful portrait of the place where we honor their fallen comrades.

Howard Shirley is a writer in Franklin, Tennessee.


YouTube trailer of On Hallowed Ground:

Veterans Day, November 11, began as Armistice Day—the day on which World War I, or The Great War as it was then known, came to a messy, awkward close. But as later wars became more significant to America, Armistice Day changed to Veterans Day as a way to celebrate all veterans of conflicts past and […]
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The war that interests Americans most profoundly, the war with which they identify most intimately, even personally, is the Civil War. Thousands of books have responded to that abiding interest. Armed with these four new releases, readers can march confidently into the sesquicentennial, the four-year-long 150th anniversary of the war.

Since many books on the Civil War are so similar, books that provide fresh perspectives are always welcome, especially during the anniversary now under way. The freshest of the four books in hand is America Aflame: How the Civil War Created a Nation by David Goldfield. The list of his previous books is impressive—seven major books and eight edited works on race and religion in the rural and urban South, past and present. Now he poses a crucial question for the Civil War sesquicentennial: “Can anyone say anything new about the Civil War?”

Goldfield’s unique argument, brilliantly executed in a distinctive style, is that one effect of the Second Great Awakening was to create a religious fervor that enflamed secular debate over slavery and economic forces from the 1830s to the end of Reconstruction. Contrasting concepts of good and evil across the nation led to the failure of the American experiment, and religious and political bombast lit the fuse at Fort Sumter. Out of the human carnage and destruction of the war that ended slavery evolved the great Northern industrial success and the still-lingering religion of the Lost Cause that kept the South in relative ignorance and poverty until the late 1960s.

Readers will find another fresh take in 1861: The Civil War Awakening by Adam Goodheart. Plenty of historians have focused, with various emphases, upon the fateful year of 1861, but Goodheart wants us to know about some little-known actors in the dramatic effort to remake the country. He shows us a nation that had strayed from the vision of the Revolution into a country where democratic morality and liberty would prevail, with a cast of characters that includes an acrobatic militia colonel, an explorer’s wife, a regiment of New York City firemen, a close-knit band of German immigrants and a young college professor, James J. Garfield, destined to become our second assassinated president.

Goodheart's initial inspiration was the discovery in 2008 of a huge trove of family papers in the attic of a ruined plantation house in Maryland—13 generations, 300 years of American history. While his narrative will appeal to the broadest audience, scholars would do well to delve into this excellent, well-researched and convincingly argued study of those months in which forces tending toward either war or peace clashed in a final battle in which war prevailed. But ultimately, the winner was the conviction of many kinds of people that a second American revolution demanded the freeing of the slaves.

Coming out of the bicentennial of his birth in 2009, it is altogether fitting that books on Lincoln, who remains the major Civil War figure, remain at the forefront of our consciousness. Although many books have collected Lincoln’s speeches and writings, Harold Holzer’s claim for Lincoln on War is that it is the first book to collect the president’s writings on the Civil War. In fact, he creates a very useful context for the Civil War pieces by including writings from Lincoln’s earlier life as well. The speeches, letters, memoranda, orders, telegrams and casual remarks are in chronological order, and Holzer, major-domo of the Lincoln Bicentennial Commission, comments upon and interprets each entry. The collection “embraces the soaring, practical, comic, distraught, and hectoring,” with topics including tactics, military strategy, the responsibilities of overseeing an army and even Lincoln’s interest in military technology.

In his introduction, Holzer notes that “Abraham Lincoln’s official White House portrait still dominates the State Dining Room.” And so, one hopes, his words still ring in the ears of the presidents and statesmen and women who dine there, such as this famous line: “If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that.”

Not so well remembered is the statement by Robert E. Lee emblazoned on the back of The Civil War: A Visual History: “I wish that I owned every slave in the South. I would free them all to avoid this war.”

The Smithsonian has dared to add yet another lavishly illustrated picture book to the hundreds already on coffee tables and shelves—and it is one of the finest in every respect, especially the vivid page designs. Many of the best photographs, newspaper cartoons, maps, drawings and paintings are seldom seen in other books, so that for the general reader the images taken together will provide a fresh impression of every aspect of the war and Reconstruction, including the role of black soldiers, spies, politics and the home front. New photographs show galleries of uniforms, flags, pistols, artillery and other artifacts of the time, such as medical instruments. Two-page spreads provide timelines for each year, and the text that weaves in and out among the well-designed pages gives an excellent gallery of people and a summary of the war.

The first three books mentioned here may inspire readers to meditate on the war and its legacy, while the Smithsonian’s visual history may stimulate the commemoration impulse. Living in a time of civil wars that affect us all, we do well to experience our own in books such as these, especially during this major anniversary. As Shelby Foote said, the Civil War is “the crossroads of our being.”

The war that interests Americans most profoundly, the war with which they identify most intimately, even personally, is the Civil War. Thousands of books have responded to that abiding interest. Armed with these four new releases, readers can march confidently into the sesquicentennial, the four-year-long 150th anniversary of the war. A MORAL AWAKENINGSince many books […]
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For some readers, summer means enough time to tackle a serious work of history. Other readers relish the vicarious thrills of true crime and courtroom drama, while armchair travelers settle in for an exciting new journey (and save a bundle on luggage fees). These books share one trait vital to any summer read: unputdownability.

If you know anything about the Crimean War, it’s likely a story told from the British point of view. In The Crimean War, historian Orlando Figes consulted Turkish, Russian, French and Ottoman sources as well, to create a broader picture of “the major conflict of the nineteenth century.”

This battle, both religious and territorial in nature, was the first truly modern war. Steamships and railways were crucial, as well as technology like the telegraph, field hospitals and medical triage. It was also the first to have war reporters and photographers directly on the scene. Yet older traditions such as truces to allow each side to collect their dead from the battlefield were still observed, and “war tourists” traveled from all over the world, opera glasses and picnic baskets in hand, to observe the fighting. Some soldiers were hampered by enforced adherence to traditional dress codes that barely allowed them freedom of movement and didn’t keep out the elements; the war killed almost a million soldiers, but many of those deaths were from cholera and exposure.

It’s fascinating to see a young Leo Tolstoy appear in the story, reporting on the fighting in Sevastopol to Tsar Nicholas and finding his voice as an author in a setting that inspired some classic literature. The Crimean War takes readers through the famous Charge of the Light Brigade, but also well beyond and deeper, in a bold re-examination of this 150-year-old war.

On January 6, 2002, Christa Worthington’s body was found on the floor of her Cape Cod cottage, stabbed, beaten and half-naked, her two-year-old daughter clinging to her side. Who could have done such a thing? Reasonable Doubt follows the investigation, the trial and its aftermath, and reaches a disturbing conclusion: An innocent man is now in jail for life, and Christa’s real killer is free.

Journalist Peter Manso intended to write a quickie “trial book,” but once he started researching the story, things turned ugly. Christopher McCowen, an African-American garbage collector with an IQ bordering on mental retardation, was interrogated for hours but no recording was made, and his statements were condensed and edited by the investigating officer. Now in jail for life, he maintains his innocence, and can point to a more likely suspect whose connections in law enforcement may have granted him a pass. Manso finds corruption in every corner of Cape Cod law enforcement, possibly even in the presiding judge’s decision to deny appeals for a retrial that would have hurt his chances for promotion. Entrenched racism in the affluent white community made it easy to sell the story of a black murderer, and many believed that a possible sexual liaison between McCowen and Worthington could only have been rape.

It’s a grim tale from any angle, and Manso balances a straightforward accounting of the investigation and trial with a more inflammatory section at the end of the book, listing the missteps by DA Michael O’Keefe along with a Q&A designed to explain the fallibility of DNA evidence and many other pieces of information that were kept out of the trial (but were, in Manso’s opinion, crucial to an understanding of what really happened). Readers will of course draw their own conclusions, but Reasonable Doubt raises potent questions about our courts and the true beneficiaries of justice.

Robert Rodi fell so in love with one part of Tuscan culture, it bordered on obsession. Seven Seasons in Siena chronicles the author’s multiple trips to Siena, home of the Palio, a bareback horse race around the town’s central piazza. Seventeen independent societies, known as contrade, compete in the race, and Rodi is determined to find acceptance in the Noble Contrada of the Caterpillar. It’s not a simple matter of asking permission: The culture is insular and macho, while Rodi is a gay American writer who’s just getting a handle on conversational Italian. But he doesn’t give up.

Rodi has been compared to Bill Bryson, and rightly so; Seven Seasons in Siena is packed full of history, trivia and details about Siena, yet reads like a breezy travelogue. It’s also frequently hilarious. When a native indulges Rodi’s rudimentary language skills, “He grins widely, as though listening to a parakeet try to speak Latin.” Seconds after tasting some proffered homemade grappa, Rodi says, “I can feel all the hair on my chest just quietly drop off.” You may decide to spend a season in Siena yourself after reading this love letter to a passionate people and their beautiful corner of the world.

For some readers, summer means enough time to tackle a serious work of history. Other readers relish the vicarious thrills of true crime and courtroom drama, while armchair travelers settle in for an exciting new journey (and save a bundle on luggage fees). These books share one trait vital to any summer read: unputdownability.  BATTLE […]
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It is an open question whether history as it comes down to us, with all its political and psychological overlays, has something useful to teach us about our own affairs. What is not in dispute about history, though, is its power to entertain and inspire us with its myths and stories. In this regard, the four annals considered here are all enormously satisfying and thought-provoking—maybe even instructive.

As director of the British Museum, Neil MacGregor had only to look around him to find the exemplary artifacts he discusses in A History of the World in 100 Objects. The oldest is a stone chopping tool discovered in the Olduvai Gorge in Tanzania and estimated to be between 1.8 and 2 million years old, while the newest is a solar-powered light and charger made in China in 2010. Each object is illustrated in color and explained by MacGregor in essays that manage to be both scholarly and conversational in tone. Embedded within certain of these essays are additional wise commentaries from the likes of David Attenborough, Martin Amis, Yo Yo Ma, Karen Armstrong and Seamus Heaney.

Not surprisingly, most of the objects cited are from the large civilization centers of Europe, Africa and Asia. But there are also ones from less bustling locations: a Clovis spear point from Arizona, a pestle from New Guinea, a textile fragment from Peru, a bark shield from Australia. The choices here will no doubt spur arguments about significance (was the Hawaiian feather helmet really symbolic of human development?), omissions (where is the can of Spam? the Swiss pocket knife?) and political correctness (is the Suffragette-defaced penny anything more than an oddity?). But, then, isn’t raising issues the best part of reading histories?

The congenitally combative art critic Robert Hughes began his long love affair with Rome on his first visit there in 1959. In Rome: A Cultural, Visual, and Personal History, he undertakes the gargantuan task of chronicling more than 3,000 years of myths, battles, political intrigues, religious upheavals and, most dear to him, art in its infinite manifestations. He begins his account in the mists of prehistory and carries it forward to what he sees as Rome’s present condition—a pestilential tourist beehive in which art is viewed and checked off one’s list rather than savored.

No figure is too transient, no artifact too trivial and no political movement too bizarre to merit Hughes’ attention as he strides those city streets through the ages. His descriptions are sharp and vivid. Of the battle at Cannae between the Carthaginian Hannibal’s troops and Roman soldiers, he writes, “Roman losses in a single day at Cannae were almost as great as American combat losses (58,000) in the Vietnam War. And it all happened within about nine hours on a late-spring or early-summer day, blindingly hot, fogged with the clouds of dust kicked up by thousands of men in their relentless, terminal struggle.”

Although his prose often has a working man’s swagger to it, Hughes can become lyrical given the right stimulus. Recalling the Church of Santa Maria della Consolazione in nearby Umbria, he says, “There is no town around it; it simply emerges from the earth, flooded with light inside. No mosaics, no statuary, no gilt, no marble: only strong, ideal geometrical form. To have such an interior to oneself, in the light of a spring morning, is to grasp a fleeting sense of what Dante meant—‘luce, intellettual, piena d’amore’: the light of the mind, suffused with love.”

Margaret E. Wagner’s The Library of Congress Illustrated Timeline of the Civil War is a real factual and pictorial treasure. Illustrated by more than 350 photographs, drawings, editorial cartoons, maps, handbills and manuscript reproductions (many in color), the book begins on February 4, 1861, when representatives from six secessionist states meet in Montgomery, Alabama, to form a Confederate government, and ends on May 29, 1865, when newly elevated President Andrew Johnson grants amnesties or pardons to most of those who rebelled against the Union.

All the entries are brief, so the accounts of skirmishes and battles are necessarily summaries. But the length is perfect for anecdotes that reveal the human side of the war, such as this one from October 15, 1863: “Inventor H. L. Hunley is among eight men who die when the Confederate submarine H. L. Hunley sinks (for the second time; see August 29, 1863) during a practice dive in Charleston Harbor.” Or take this missive for February 10, 1864: “When flames are spotted at the president’s stables near the White House, Abraham Lincoln dashes outside, leaping over an intervening boxwood hedge ‘like a deer’ . . . and ‘with his own hands burst open the stable door.’ ” Lincoln was restrained from entering the building, and the fire killed six horses, including one that had belonged to his deceased son.

The book’s illustrations are large, fully captioned and powerfully narrative in their own right. Among the curiosities depicted are a drawing from a surgery manual showing how to amputate a leg; a printed envelope bearing the likeness of Lincoln’s reluctant general, George B. McClellan, and identifying him as “The Bag of Wind”; and a letter written by Jefferson Davis’ secretary with lines running both across and up and down the page to save precious paper. It is hard to imagine a more accessible survey of the Civil War than this one.

Strange as it may seem now, as recently as 50 years ago, textbooks on American history barely touched on the contributions of African Americans. Henry Louis Gates Jr.’s stirring collection, Life Upon These Shores, is a chronicle of important figures and events that were long overlooked, forgotten or ignored. He begins in 1513, when Vasco Núñez de Balboa first sighted the Pacific Ocean at the Isthmus of Panama, with 30 Africans among his party. Just over 100 years later, in 1619, the first shipment of slaves to America arrived in Jamestown, Virginia. The terminus of Gates’ survey, naturally enough, is the election of America’s first black president.

Illustrated with more than 750 drawings, paintings and photographs, the book offers little historical vignettes much like those in an encyclopedia, except that these entries are in chronological rather than alphabetical order. The recurring themes—as Gates presents them in his measured, conversational tone—are resistance, persistence, imagination, self-help and thwarted attempts at assimilation.

Perhaps because it has been so minutely anatomized elsewhere, Gates devotes only a few pages to the Civil War proper, concentrating instead on events leading up to the war and the devastating Reconstruction period that followed. In the modern era, he pays much attention to the influence of African Americans on the arts and popular culture—from Duke Ellington and Richard Wright to Muhammad Ali, Spike Lee and Oprah Winfrey. He also illuminates political conflicts within the African-American community via snapshots of such volatile figures as Marcus Garvey, Martin Luther King Jr., Louis Farrakhan and Clarence Thomas, and summarizes the achievements of African Americans in municipal, state and national politics. One may quibble with his omissions, but Gates’ task here is truly Herculean, and he has handled it superbly.

It is an open question whether history as it comes down to us, with all its political and psychological overlays, has something useful to teach us about our own affairs. What is not in dispute about history, though, is its power to entertain and inspire us with its myths and stories. In this regard, the […]
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History, football, humor, architecture, hunting—all are subjects that fit into the general scope of gifts for guys. This year’s picks offer a bounty of visual fare (men are visual, right?), but informative texts are also a big part of the picture.

Kicking off the coverage is The Pro Football Hall of Fame 50th Anniversary Book. This handsomely produced tribute to the history of American football, edited by sports historians Joe Horrigan and John Thorn, is part of the celebration of 50 years of the Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio, itself a town steeped in the lore of the early days of the game. The text offers a colorful—if more sepia-tinged—rundown of the sport’s formative years in the late 19th century, filling in much history that probably eludes the average fan. Later, the text provides coverage by decade, with sections authored by journalists such as Peter King and Dave Anderson. Scattered throughout are quotes aplenty from Hall of Famers themselves, who share career reflections and insight into what sparked their determination on game day. Otherwise, the volume is a treasure trove of photos: reproductions of old contracts and important correspondence, pictures of bygone equipment, jerseys and helmets worn by the greats, action shots from big games and more. 


No less a photographic windfall is Great Buildings, a marvelous showcase of 53 of the world’s most striking structures. The photos are often flat-out spectacular, with the coverage ranging from the ancient (Great Pyramid of Giza, Parthenon, Colosseum) to the modern (Yusuhara Wooden Bridge Museum in Kochi, Japan). Each entry includes a description and useful historical sidebars by British author and architectural maven Philip Wilkinson, along with a visual tour that breaks down each building into its component parts, with a focus on style and construction. Armchair travelers and architecture buffs will be blown away by the views of, say, Germany’s Neuschwanstein Castle, Spain’s Alhambra, the Temple of Heaven in Beijing and India’s Taj Mahal. Another fabulous project from Dorling Kindersley.


Many a young lad has been captivated by the legend surrounding George Armstrong Custer, the dashing Civil War officer who later earned his place in history when he and his 7th Cavalry troops were defeated in 1876 by Lakota and Cheyenne warriors at Montana’s Little Bighorn River. Custer’s infamous “last stand” loomed as a heroic event for years, but revisionist thought pretty much set the record straight: The impetuous Custer made broad command mistakes, and there was nothing noble about his outcome. Yet the Custer story will never die, and in the new Custer, Pulitzer Prize-winning author Larry McMurtry provides a compactly incisive text that recalls the Custer myth and resets its context within America’s late 19th-century military adventurism on the Plains and the fate of the Native American tribes. Accompanying McMurtry’s words are hundreds of photos and reproductions of paintings, maps and other illustrative material. This is a wonderful gift item for any “Custer guy.”


Guys who like to laugh will gravitate to two new volumes representing iconic American humor franchises. First up is Totally MAD, which celebrates MAD magazine’s 60-year-old legacy while also featuring excerpts from some of its most popular features. Current MAD editor John Ficarra oversees the coverage, which includes background on late, longtime publisher Bill Gaines, the history of Alfred E. Neuman, MAD lawsuits and more. The graphics are great, including pictures of every MAD cover ever published and samplings of the parodies, satires and cartoons from contributors like Al Jaffee, Mort Drucker, Jack Davis, Sergio Aragonés and Don Martin.

Less browsable but rich with wit is The Onion Book of Known Knowledge, in which the Onion editors serve up a fractured A-to-Z compendium of important people, places and things. There are plenty of photos and illustrations here—e.g., Alan Greenspan clubbing with hot chicks!—but the emphasis is on zany lexicon-like entries that overturn all logic and expectation in search of a knowing chuckle.


Finally, we have Meat Eater, a hunter’s tribute to the natural world and the value of providing your own food. This lively memoir recounts the outdoors life of Steven Rinella, a nature writer and cable TV host. Rinella grew up in the Midwest learning to hunt and fish under the strong influence of his father and brothers. “As a nation, we have swapped the smelly and unpredictable pungency of the woods in exchange for the sanitized safety of manicured grass,” Rinella writes. He details his exploits—from Michigan, to the Missouri Breaks, to Mexico and beyond—as he pursues muskrat, mountain lions and other game, all the while espousing his deep regard for hunting’s social traditions and its rightful place in the natural order.

History, football, humor, architecture, hunting—all are subjects that fit into the general scope of gifts for guys. This year’s picks offer a bounty of visual fare (men are visual, right?), but informative texts are also a big part of the picture. Kicking off the coverage is The Pro Football Hall of Fame 50th Anniversary Book. […]
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Although they examine three separate, significant times in the span of African-American history, these books share common themes: the struggle for freedom, the quest for equality and the achievement of these goals with the help of a great leader. Spanning more than a century, from the Civil War to the Civil Rights movement, these new volumes provide important perspective as we celebrate Black History Month.


Much has been written about Abraham Lincoln’s evolution from a president who simply sought to preserve the union to one who ultimately realized he must free the slaves. But James Oakes makes the case in Freedom National that even before the Civil War, Lincoln held a firm anti-slavery view and pursued that goal until his death. While January 1, 2013, marked the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, Oakes writes that long before that historic order was issued, Lincoln and the Republican Party were orchestrating political and military maneuvers to free the slaves.

Oakes, a noted professor of history, provocatively sets the starting date of the emancipation at less than four months after the first cannon shot of the Civil War. It was on August 6, 1861, that Lincoln signed the First Confiscation Act, instructing the Union Army to seize any property and free any slaves owned by Southerners disloyal to the union. “[F]irmly convinced that slavery was the source of the rebellion, Republicans began attacking it almost as soon as the war began,” Oakes writes.

While experiencing some success with military action, Lincoln realized he needed a broader decree—the Emancipation Proclamation—to achieve full freedom for slaves. Thus, Oakes writes, the Emancipation Proclamation wasn’t the beginning or end of Lincoln’s mission, but a more aggressive phase of his anti-slavery campaign. The final steps were victory over the South in the war, and then passage of the Thirteenth Amendment outlawing slavery, which Lincoln shepherded through Congress. He was assassinated before the amendment was ratified by the states.

Freedom National is a refreshing new look at Lincoln because it refutes a growing body of work arguing that it was only after exhausting every other political and military tactic that he adopted an anti-slavery stance. Oakes’ conclusion: “[Lincoln] was neither the Great Emancipator who bestrode his times and brought his people out of the darkness, nor was he in any way a reluctant emancipator held back by some visceral commitment to white supremacy.”


It is altogether fitting that this Black History Month trilogy moves from one great military conflict—the Civil War—to another: World War II. In fact, the theme of Rawn James Jr.’s The Double V is how the nation’s military conflicts, and their use of African-American soldiers, reflect our attitudes toward racism and equality. “From exclusion and segregation, to integration and diversity, the armed forces, for better or worse, have always reflected our country at large,” James writes.

The Double V refers to the attempt by black soldiers to achieve two victories in World War II: on the battlefield and at home, where they sought to be treated as equals. James, an accomplished historian, writes that the Double V campaign was best described by prominent civil rights activist Roy Wilkins, who said that blacks should “fight on for the full freedom of 100 percent democracy at home while we are fighting a war for democracy abroad.” Providing critical historical context, James details how African Americans were mustered into the U.S. military beginning in the late stages of the Civil War. Yet it wasn’t true integration, he writes, since black soldiers often performed menial tasks in segregated units.

Two factors led to the complete integration of the military, according to James: the loyalty and heroics displayed by black soldiers in World War II, and the presidency of Harry S. Truman. As a U.S. senator, Truman headed a committee to investigate misappropriation of military defense contracts. Inspecting dozens of military bases and field operations, Truman grew to understand not only the nation’s vast military apparatus, but also its soldiers, including the bravery of its black soldiers. Once the war was over and the foreign enemies dispatched, Truman turned to combating the internal enemy of segregation.

On July 26, 1948, African Americans finally enjoyed the “Double V” when Truman issued Executive Order 9981, desegregating the armed forces. Of course, the order did not end racism in the military, James points out. But this bold decision by a conservative, white Missourian did establish a doctrine to bring equality to the military. While the struggle for equality continues, James concludes that evidence of progress can be seen six decades later with the election of Barack Obama, who, as president, is commander in chief of the armed forces.


Not all wars involve the military. This is a lesson from Taylor Branch’s The King Years, which chronicles Martin Luther King Jr.’s fight for equality during the Civil Rights era. Here, the clash is between white supremacists—who refuse to allow blacks to eat at the same lunch counters, drink from the same water fountains or use the same bathrooms—and African Americans asking for the rights granted to all citizens by the U.S. Constitution. The offensive is conducted in a peaceful fashion by King, but frequently met with bloody violence.

The King Years is a distillation of Branch’s acclaimed trilogy, America in the King Years. The series totaled more than 2,000 pages, offering a comprehensive and exhaustively researched exploration of the Civil Rights movement. Branch was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for History for the first installment, Parting the Waters, and received praise for two subsequent volumes, Pillar of Fire and At Canaan’s Edge. Here, Branch selects 18 passages from the trilogy in an attempt to capture the essential moments of the Civil Rights era. Branch’s hope in publishing a condensed edition is to make history accessible to a new generation of readers. “Our goal in this edition,” Branch writes, “is to convey both the spirit and sweep of an extraordinary movement.”

Moving chronologically, The King Years begins with the Montgomery Bus Boycott in 1955, moves through the Selma March in 1965, and finishes with King’s assassination in Memphis in 1968. These condensed passages allow readers to grasp the significance of these and other key moments in King’s life and offer an invitation to Branch’s more complete writings.

In an interview with his publisher, Branch revealed the inspiration for publishing The King Years: “For all readers, I believe, lessons from the Civil Rights Era apply not to bygone forms of racial segregation but most urgently to a troubled future. . . . They show how ordinary people can work miracles against intractable burdens to advance both freedom and the common good.”

The war against racism is not over. But The King Years shows how King and others advanced the cause of equality in the same noble fashion as the great leaders who preceded them. It is Branch’s hope that a new generation who learn about King’s crusade for civil rights may be inspired to continue the fight.

Although they examine three separate, significant times in the span of African-American history, these books share common themes: the struggle for freedom, the quest for equality and the achievement of these goals with the help of a great leader. Spanning more than a century, from the Civil War to the Civil Rights movement, these new […]
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War is a complex subject with many aspects to explore, but one thing is clear: It makes for good books. Four new releases examine the American experience in three wars through the remarkable stories and objects that survived them.


Richard Rubin (Confederacy of Silence) roamed the country to interview The Last of the Doughboys, the only surviving American veterans of World War I. Just a few dozen of them remained when he began his research, including a man who transferred bodies to Meuse-Argonne American Cemetery and another who regretted not serving in combat. Though not all of the subjects are chatty, their remembrances give Rubin the opportunity to provide dignity to the elderly and show how a simpler time was actually quite complicated.

Rubin reminds us that 1.3 million men were killed in just one battle, the Somme. The era of WWI saw segregation as the norm, as well as the marginalization of women, who could not serve in combat. Immigrants were a significant presence in America, but the culture of the day was to support the U.S.—or else. Those are among several themes explored by Rubin, who is so determined to detail the battles and tasks of his interview subjects—while discussing other topics such as the challenges of interviewing 100-year-olds—that he’s nearly foiled by his own ambition. Still, he manages to fashion a nice ode to a generation whose role in shaping modern-day America is fading from public consciousness.


Robert M. Edsel’s Saving Italy examines the United States’ attempt to save valuable artistic works in WWII-ravaged Italy. Bombings and gunfire were not the only threats: The Nazis were smuggling art from various Italian cities, including works by the most famous artists of the Renaissance. Salt mines in Austria were converted into a hideout for thousands of pieces of art, some of which belonged to Adolf Hitler himself.

Saving Italy works best in showing how a picture is worth more than a thousand words. For the Nazis, the paintings and sculptures were spoils of war. For the Italians, art was a crucial part of their history, one that the Americans recognized. Out of that concern rose “a new kind of soldier charged with saving, not destroying, what lay in the path of the conquering army.” Among these soldiers were the book’s two protagonists, “Monuments Men” Deane Keller and Fred Hartt.

Though some readers may grow impatient with the book’s structure, which loads the story with a detailed accounting of military strategy (including the Nazis’ surrender), Edsel tells a readable and ultimately triumphant story.

Junius and Albert’s Adventures in the Confederacy: A Civil War Odyssey possesses the juiciness of a beach read. Peter Carlson’s excellent book covers the plight of two reporters from the New York Tribune, Junius Browne and Albert Richardson, who were captured by Confederate troops in the Battle of Vicksburg.

Since both men were non-military personnel, they were quickly paroled. But getting released was another matter entirely. Because the Confederacy so loathed the Tribune and prisoner exchanges between the North and the South had stopped, Browne and Richardson were stuck in purgatory. After 20 months, escape on foot and horseback to Union territory near Knoxville, Tennessee—a 340-mile journey laden with potential enemies—was their only option.

Carlson works with wonderful efficiency, describing the political and social environment both men faced but never losing sight of the story and its momentum. The writing is compact and vivid as readers are escorted to the hell both men endured. “Freezing rain fell all night,” Carlson writes, “and in the morning the corpses piled outside the dead house glistened with a thin coating of ice.”

I’m guessing the New-York Historical Society doesn’t have corpses, but it probably has everything else. The Civil War in 50 Objects, written by Civil War historian Harold Holzer, is a fantastic museum tour of a book. Fifty items out of the Society’s nearly one million Civil War items are presented in mostly chronological order. Holzer provides historical background and context for each piece, which range from a pike used by John Brown’s freedom fighters to a footlocker belonging to Lt. Col. William H. Paine of the Fourth Wisconsin.

The beauty of the book is its format. Readers familiar with the Civil War can head to an item of particular interest—as a reformed beat reporter, I flipped right to the prison newspaper—while casual readers will enjoy an inviting atmosphere for a historically intimidating subject. With such an effective strategy, it’s no wonder that Holzer is an editor. Perhaps he should have been a general.

War is a complex subject with many aspects to explore, but one thing is clear: It makes for good books. Four new releases examine the American experience in three wars through the remarkable stories and objects that survived them. A GENERATION PASSES Richard Rubin (Confederacy of Silence) roamed the country to interview The Last of […]
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With Father’s Day approaching, it’s time to wrap that present you’ve had hidden away for months. Wait, you have nothing hidden away and no idea what to buy Dad? Here are five books that will be even more welcome than a box of golf balls.

What Father’s Day list is complete without an unabashedly sentimental—yet realistic—look at the father-son relationship from first-person experience? Two and Two: McSorley’s, My Dad, and Me, by Rafe Bartholomew, fills that bill admirably. It also serves as a history of McSorley’s Old Ale House, a 163-year-old institution in New York’s East Village, as well as a compendium of anecdotes about things that can only happen at a beloved neighborhood bar (nowadays, alas, also a frequent tourist stop). Bartholomew, a sports writer and editor, writes lovingly of his father, known as “Bart” over the course of his 45-year bartending career, and also gives us some of his own coming-of-age glimpses along the way. If you can survive St. Patrick’s Day at McSorley’s, we learn, you can survive just about anything. But just when you think this is strictly a fathers-and-sons book, some of the best writing appears in the chapter dealing with the author’s mother, Patricia, who conquered alcoholism only to find life had an even bigger punch in store for her.

Fatherhood takes a back seat to brotherhood in The Jersey Brothers: A Missing Naval Officer in the Pacific and His Family’s Quest to Bring Him Home, but the family ties are just as strong. They extend to the author, Sally Mott Freeman, a former speechwriter and public relations executive who is the daughter of one of the brothers. Her curiosity piqued by a family argument, she sought to unravel the story of her uncle Barton’s life as an MIA naval ensign during World War II (it’s no spoiler to note that he was actually a prisoner of war) and the efforts of his two brothers—also Navy men—to find and rescue him even as they fight their own battles. Meanwhile, the home fires are tended by a tenacious mother who never hesitates to pick up her pen and give the powers that be—all the way up to President Roosevelt—a piece of her mind. Tenacious in her own way, Freeman uses archives, interviews and diaries to uncover Barton’s tragic story along with those of his brothers and fellow prisoners, who endured unspeakable horrors in Japanese prison camps as war raged in the Pacific.

Want to see Dad exercise his long-dormant debating skills? Just give him a copy of The Captain Class: The Hidden Force That Creates the World’s Greatest Teams and watch him search for his favorite team in author Sam Walker’s Tier One ranking. He’ll hunt in vain for baseball’s Big Red Machine Cincinnati Reds of the 1970s, or the Michael Jordan-led Chicago Bulls. (Hint: He’ll find Jordan in the chapter titled “False Idols.”) Rest assured, the New York Yankees (1949-53 edition) did make the cut, along with the Collingwood Magpies of Aussie Rules football and 14 other teams. If your team isn’t on the list, Walker is ready with the reasoning for the snub (for example, the lack of a “true championship,” i.e., Super Bowl, for part of their existence kept the 1960s Green Bay Packers from Valhalla). And perhaps not surprisingly, given Walker’s background at The Wall Street Journal (he founded its daily sports report), the book doubles as a guide to success in business, with pointed commentary on what makes leaders effective or ineffective (go easy on the vitriol directed at teammates, Mr. Jordan).

Dad can get in touch with his inner Walter Mitty with Shark Drunk: The Art of Catching a Large Shark from a Tiny Rubber Dinghy in a Big Ocean. The seemingly sane author, Morten Strøksnes, and an eccentric artist friend decide they want to haul up a Greenland shark—bigger than the great white, and thus the world’s largest flesh-eating shark—from the oceanic depths off the coast of Norway. Think ­Moby-Dick, but shorter and funnier with enough random factoids to fill a whale’s belly. Waiting for a shark to bite (the line, that is) gives ­Strøksnes plenty of time to muse on such topics as Norwegian history and mythology, seafaring tales, space exploration and even the shark itself. (The “drunkenness” referred to in the title comes from eating the flesh of the Greenland shark, which contains compounds used in the nerve gas trimethylamine oxide.) Ranging over a full year, the quest for more than a nibble yields satisfying insights into friendship, aspirations and the thrill of the chase. When the end comes, it’s almost anticlimactic.

Warning: Reading The Push: A Climber’s Journey of Endurance, Risk, and Going Beyond Limits can be a queasy experience, for at least a couple of reasons. For starters, the author of this absorbing memoir, expert rock climber Tommy Caldwell, spends a fair amount of time thousands (yes, thousands) of feet above ground level, protected only by a web of ropes, attempting to conquer the Next Big Climb. His targets include El Capitan’s 3,000-foot Dawn Wall in Yosemite National Park, which he conquers in 2015 with climbing partner Kevin Jorgeson. But Caldwell’s relationship with his gung-ho, adventure-guide father is also cringe-inducing and provides insight into his motivations and doubts, along with at least one failed relationship. If Caldwell’s name rings a bell, it’s possibly because one of his international expeditions ended with him and his companions—including the woman who would become his first wife—being held hostage by militants in Kyrgyzstan in 2000, escaping only when Caldwell pushed a captor off a nearly sheer dropoff. Somehow the captor survived, but it’s clear the incident still haunts Caldwell. Between the thrills, this book will haunt the reader, too.


This article was originally published in the June 2017 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

With Father’s Day approaching, it’s time to wrap that present you’ve had hidden away for months. Wait, you have nothing hidden away and no idea what to buy Dad? Here are five books that will be even more welcome than a box of golf balls.

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The Friend by Sigrid Nunez
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.

The best new paperback releases for book clubs.
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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.

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