New history books (March 2012 edition)

Posted in American, Books by Alex L. on April 21, 2012

History off the Book header

Below is a survey of books that were published in the past month or so and look to me like interesting reads (note: I have not actually read these books yet, and these are previews not reviews).

Soldiers’ stories

Book coverGreat books temporarily lend the reader a new set of senses to experience a different reality. Sometimes as readers we recognize the types of books that propel us into a world that we have learned to enjoy, and we crave this release. Often I want to read military memoirs and observe how courageous individuals dealt with extreme adversity in moments of intense pressure. Of course I am witnessing their stories from a comfortable distance (often from a comfortable couch too) but then again I wouldn’t want to actually go through what those soldiers did firsthand. I just finished reading Tom Johnson’s excellent memoir, To the Limit, about his service as a Huey helicopter pilot in the Vietnam War. It gave me — a fixed-wing aviation buff — a newfound appreciation for the skill and warrior spirit of military helicopter pilots.

In February, Vietnam veteran Philip Keith published a book about a unit of tank troops in Vietnam — part of the Blackhorse Regiment — that responded to a distress call from an encircled company of American infantry. This group of men who fought through the enemy-held jungle to rescue their countrymen was not publicly recognized for their courageous deeds until 2009 when President Obama awarded their outfit the Presidential Unit Citation. Accounts of tank combat are inexplicably rare and Keith’s seems like an engrossing one.

But now I’m moving on to read a memoir by Sean Parnell that was also published this February and titled Outlaw Platoon: Heroes, Renegades, Infidels, and the Brotherhood of War in Afghanistan. Like the documentary Restrepo, Outlaw Platoon is an eyewitness look at the combat life of American soldiers who patrol the most contested frontiers in Afghanistan. The technology may change, but the psychological experiences of soldiers in current wars remain close to those of combatants who fought in history’s prior conflicts.

Abuses of power

Book coverTraditional conservatives hold that human power is an ugly thing, and the more power a person wields the nastier it becomes. This is most true when society gives individuals power over life and death but is also apparent in more subtle cases. Last month, journalist Richard Zacks published a work called Island of Vice about Theodore Roosevelt’s days as the police commissioner in New York City in the 1890s. Roosevelt tried to turn the city from its proclivities toward prostitution, gambling, and drink and encourage old-fashioned virtuous living. Roosevelt failed, but the story promises to be an interesting case study in the limits of political power in changing public habits.

A darker example of a misuse of power is the subject of Jonathan Sarna’s new book, When General Grant Expelled the Jews. Prior to hearing about this work, I had no idea that Gen. Ulysses S. Grant during the Civil War ordered the forced relocation of Jewish Americans from the territory under his command in a misguided effort to curb the illegal trade of Southern cotton in the North. A tornado of controversy forced Abraham Lincoln to rescind Grant’s order. Grant would later apologize for his decision, appoint Jews to high posts in his presidential administration, and even visit the Holy Land. Both of these books published last month can inspire thought about the two-headed character of using brute force in the service of the common good.

Enemies: A History of the FBI. Tim Weiner. Pulitzer-Prize winning author of a book about the CIA turns his attention in this new work to the FBI and challenges the recent Hollywood portrayal of J. Edgar Hoover (in J. Edgar starring Leonardo DiCaprio) as a puppeteer of presidents.

Notable mentions

China’s Wings: War, Intrigue, Romance, and Adventure in the Middle Kingdom During the Golden Age of Flight. Gregory Crouch. This is a master storyteller’s account of the nascent Chinese airline industry in the 1930s and the American airmen and entrepreneurs who worked overseas even as Japan waged a war of aggression in East Asia.

Hitlerland: American Eyewitnesses to the Nazi Rise to PowerAndrew Nagorski. Stories of Americans living abroad in the 19th and 20th centuries are a popular topic for contemporary historians (cf. McCullough and Glass). So is the subject of Hitler’s rise to power (cf. Wick and Snyder). Nagorski fuses the two themes in his new book.

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