History off the press (October ’11 edition)

Posted in American, Ancient, Books, Economics, European, War by Alex L. on November 22, 2011

New history books header, October 2011

Swords to plowshares

President Obama recently announced that the United States will recall all of its armed forces personnel from Iraq by the end of 2011. This is a strange outcome for those of us who remember the seemingly insurmountable setbacks created by the insurgency before the 2007 surge of American troops unraveled the extremists’ grip on the country. It was hard to see back then that the situation in Iraq could improve. But it did. The following books explore in a unique way the nature of organized violence in the contemporary world.

Book coverAlthough we may not realize it from all of the news dispatches dripping with depressing forebodings of disaster either due to economic or glacial meltdown, there are reasons to be optimistic about the current state of the world. Joshua S. Goldstein, in a new book called Winning the War on War: The Decline of Armed Conflict Worldwide, makes the case that the human race is freer from war now than it has ever been. The facts tell a counterintuitive but inspiring story: there are currently no nations at war in the world (only civil wars are going on) and last year had one of the lowest death rates from armed conflict in history.

Along similar lines, Steven Pinker has just published a similar work. Pinker makes the same observation – “we may be living in the most peaceful time in our species’s existence” – but approaches the subject from the perspective of psychology, his field of study, rather than international affairs. Both of these perspectives are worth keeping in mind the next time you hear a pundit on cable news or a sensationalistic author prophesying apocalypse for Western civilization just to get your attention.

Book coverAmazon.com’s Best Book of September 2011 is Karl Marlantes’s What It Is Like to Go to War. Marlantes is the author of the popular novel recently published about the Vietnam War titled Matterhorn, but his more recent book is candid non-fiction. There, he uses his own experiences in Vietnam to describe the psychological pressures soldiers endure, such as killing strangers in foreign nations, watching your friends being killed by them, and returning home to a country of civilians who can not understand what that feels like.

What is now called post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) was once called shell shock and sometimes mistaken for cowardice. But there are many soldiers who escaped a war without any destruction of their body but whose mental functioning became as gnarled as amputated limbs. I internalized this fact after having seen a short YouTube clip of footage from World War I of soldiers overcome by “shell shock” after the Battle of Verdun (you can see it here, but be warned: it’s very graphic). I think it’s useful for civilians to read honest accounts of war such as Marlantes’s because soldiers of all wars that are not fought on home soil often feel isolated from their own countrymen for lack of being understood.

Book coverI don’t think Ken Ballen’s new book, Terrorists in Love: Real Lives of Islamic Radicals, would have been published ten years ago. A former federal prosecutor of terrorists, Ballen founded a non-profit organization called Terror Free Tomorrow devoted to understanding the minds and hearts of extremists and suicide bombers. Our current two wars are slowly nearing resolution, but it is essential that we understand the circumstances that drive people to extremism.

President Obama suggested last Thursday that the military focus of the United States has moved away from fighting the war on terror to asserting U.S. influence in East Asia. If Jeremi Suri, who was a history professor at my alma mater when I was an undergraduate, is correct in claiming in his new book that nation-building is an American specialty, then we should consider the realities of the common people in all of the places where we intervene.

Booms, busts and revolutions

In the past several years, economics has come to the forefront of national concern. When the stock market crashed in September and October of 2008, it practically sidelined John McCain’s hopes of being elected president (his bungling of the issue during the campaign didn’t help either) as the American public looked toward Barack Obama and a new Democratic administration to restore fiscal order. The complexities of the recent crash have been analyzed and retold, compared to the Great Depression, and set off the current Occupy movement against socioeconomic inequality. The following are some interesting new narratives related to economics.

Book coverMenzie Chinn was my favorite economics professor in college. He would begin each class by reviewing the latest economic indicators that were posted on Bloomberg.com and explain to us what they said about the state of the economy. Over a year before the market crashed, he laid out for us the dangerous state of the housing market. Professor Chinn’s economics blog, which he frequently updates, is one of the best on the internet.

Given this praise, is it a wonder that I would feature here his latest book about the current recession? In Lost Decades: The Making of America’s Debt Crisis and Long Recovery, Chinn compares the current financial crisis to previous ones here and abroad and highlights the crippling effect of America’s debt on the economy. The title is a reference to Argentina during the 1980s, which became known as the “lost decade” for that country because of the problems caused by unrestrained borrowing from foreigners in the 1970s. Browsing through the book, I can tell it’s written in the engaging and approachable style that I enjoyed as a student in Professor Chinn’s class.

Book coverMarkets take occasional dives in the natural course of financial life, but what frequently turns economic downturns into complete disasters is public fear. Widespread loss of confidence in the financial system is detrimental to banks, governments, and citizens because, among other things, it can increase inflation and diminish investments in new enterprises. A new work by Ron Suskind examines the recent crash from the perspective of confidence in government: how it was lost under the presidency of George W. Bush and regained during the election of Barack Obama.

What didn’t help to ease public worries over the economy during 2008-09 were the repeated comparisons of those years’ market crash to the Great Depression. How accurate and insightful is such a comparison? To answer this, we have to understand what the economy of the 1930s was like. A new book by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Michael Hiltzik, titled The New Deal: A Modern History, reevaluates the momentous government programs launched by Franklin D. Roosevelt to address the economic impact of the Great Depression. It’s worth a read to put current events in perspective.

Book coverEconomics can be an obtuse subject for the uninitiated (myself included; I took the non-math intensive option in my major). Luckily, there are people out there who are both versed in econometrics and in prose writing. They help in the essential task of revealing economic issues to the public. A classic in this field is Robert L. Heilbroner’s The Worldly Philosophers, which recounts the lives and ideas of important economic thinkers. Another work, written by Sylvia Nasar and published in September, focuses on the 19th and 20th Century economists who helped to improve the material circumstances of the poor worldwide.

Such histories vivify the very personal lives of now-dead economists. With this goal in mind, Mary Gabriel has just published a book called Love and Capital: Karl and Jenny Marx and the Birth of a Revolution. Looking at photographs of the long-bearded men and hoop-skirted women of the 19th Century, it’s hard to imagine them as real. Their death and disappearance from the world suggests their fragility and insignificance. But knowing that we are all fated to this vanishing act, we can empathize with the stories of their lives. Karl Marx lived an interesting and influential one. What sights, circumstances, and experiences caused him to create his ideas? There are always human-interest stories behind the histories.

Notable mentions

Memorial. Alice Oswald. I love it when old stories or events from the past are given a new breath of life by casting them with vivid modern language. Oswald retells Homer’s epic, The Iliad, with contemporary forms and similies.

Reprobates: The Cavaliers of the English Civil War. John Stubbs. This seems like an interesting book to introduce oneself to the English Civil War written by an author who has a sense of reality and humor about people of the past.

Ostkrieg: Hitler’s War of Extermination in the East. Stephen G. Fritz. Despite its significance, books about the Eastern Front in WWII are rare. This one is unique in examining both German military and terror operations.

Death in the City of Light: The Serial Killer of Nazi-Occupied Paris. David King. A grim spin on (what seems to me) the recent popularity of French history in America, this book recounts a disturbing but fascinating true crime story.

Grant’s Final Victory: Ulysses S. Grant’s Heroic Last Year. General and President Grant died penniless but finished his brilliant memoirs just days before his death, saving his family from financial ruin. A really cool idea for a book.

2 Responses

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  1. Christopher Cocca said, on November 23, 2011 at 1:27 pm

    This was a very helpful, well-written overview of quite a few books I’m interested in. Thank you!

    While it may be true that no nation-states are currently at war with each other, how does Goldstein treat transnational terrorism? And we can’t really count what’s going on in Israel/Palestine as a civil war, nor is it a traditional war. I’m sure Goldstein took all of this into account, but I’m wondering if nation-states-at-war is a good index of peace in the first place. Do last year’s numbers for armed conflict include civil wars, political murders, and terrorism?

    Then, of course, we consider the foundational “war of each against all.” I’m ready for that one to be over.

  2. Alex L. said, on November 25, 2011 at 9:34 pm

    Thanks for your comment, Christopher. I’m not sure about the specifics of Goldstein’s statistics (I haven’t actually read the above books – I forgot to mention in this post as I have in the previous ones that these are book previews rather than book reviews). I should read Goldstein, but you make a good point in questioning how we measure “peace”.

    Civil wars in African nations today (and in Southeast Asian countries in previous decades, as well as in Europe in the 17th Century) result in millions of lives lost. And I guess, as you suggest, any war can be looked upon as a civil war from the perspective of our common humanity.

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