Saturday, August 13, 2022

REVIEW: Soldiers: Army Lives and Loyalties from Redcoats to Dusty Warriors by Richard Holmes

Image from Amazon
Note: This book review was originally written for an academic reading course on "total war". That conceptual focus is reflected in the review.

Total war as a concept requires, among its many facets, discussion of total mobilisation, which in turn requires insight into the men and women being mobilised for total war aims. Richard Holmes’s Soldiers contributes to that discussion by providing a social history of the British soldier, woven tightly around military history but centring the lives and structures of those who serve as contrasted to spotlighting the events they lived through. One aspect that Holmes highlights right from the beginning, is “not how much [the British soldier] has changed: but how little”. This is a meaningful statement to hinge the volume on. Conceptually, total war is best understood as a continuity, rather than a descriptor for a singular event or events. Holmes’s recognition that the centrepiece of fighting a total war – its manpower – must also be a continuity tracks well onto the framework and thus raises both the utility and the applicability of this book in the broader corpus of literature engaging with concepts of total war.

Saturday, July 16, 2022

REVIEW: The Shadows of Total War: Europe, East Asia, and the United States, 1919–1939 ed. Roger Chickering and Stig Forster

Image from Cambridge University Press

The Shadows of Total War
is the fourth volume in a series of five collating the proceedings of the German Historical Institute in Washington, D.C’s conferences on total war. This collection of 18 essays examines the concept through the interwar period, covering a spread of topics from military history as well as interdisciplinary perspectives. The strength of the volume is unequal, with the third and fourth parts, ‘Visions of the Next War’ and ‘Projections and Practice’, bearing out as much stronger and cohesive to the theme of total war. More so than in the first two parts of the volume, these later essays interrogate the social, philosophical, and policy implications of responding to the First World War as a total war and preparing – materially, ideologically, or both – for the next war as one of similar calibre. 

Saturday, June 25, 2022

CLOSE READING: ‘My subject is War, and the pity of War. The Poetry is in the pity.’

How form impacts persona and message in the poetry of Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen

Photo by Elina Sazonova
Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen — the names of these two poets evoke, instantaneously, thoughts of the artistic heart that was moulded in the steel storm of the First World War, and, in the case of Owen, outlasted its creator’s experience of it. Owen and Sassoon had a well-known friendship, with Owen very much seeing Sassoon as a mentor. Yet although united in their experience of human-wrought horror and their creative outlet of poetry, they each had distinct approaches to using it as a means to process their experiences, particularly as pertains the way they utilised form. This analysis primarily focuses on Sassoon’s ‘The Hero’ and Owen’s ‘Anthem for Doomed Youth’, but will also include discussion of Sassoon’s ‘The Dug Out’ as well as Owen’s ‘The Send-Off’ to formulate a more nuanced take on each poet’s use of form and how, through rhyme, metre, pronouns, and diction, the poets either close or widen the narrative distance. Through this it will become clear that form integrally serves the poetry of both poets, either through the persona in the interest of persuasion through emotional connection, pertinent to the waning Victorian tradition and used more by Sassoon, or through precise imagery and language in the interest of dissuasion through generating feelings of unease, pertinent to the emerging Modernist tradition and used more by Owen.

Saturday, June 4, 2022

REVIEW: The First Total War: Napoleon’s Europe and the Birth of Warfare as We Know It by David Bell

Image from Amazon

When does a war become total? David Bell answers that typological question by illustrating the first time, to his eyes, a war ever bore the social, philosophical, and practical hallmarks of a conflict that saw mass mobilisation, radicalised war aims, and blurred the civilian-soldier line – hallmarks that, arguably, best encapsulate total war as a concept. The central thesis of The First Total War is that the Napoleonic wars demonstrated a significant break in military culture from the limited style of warfare that followed the religious wars. Bell illustrates this well and suits his purpose with this volume, although his argument forfeits detailed evaluation of total war as a continuity of features.

In Bell’s argument, the chief arena of change is social and philosophical rather than technological, though he certainly highlights the distinction between infantrymen fighting pikes versus cannon. Within the first chapter, Bell highlights the lack of distinction between spheres of life in the officer corps, where the theatre of aristocracy is staged in equal parts at court and during the campaign. Here, war is a part of social identity and a bridge to intellectualism, crossed by figures like Lauzun, Marquis de Sade, and Napoleon. These figures show their faces throughout, such as in the chapter on the National Assembly debating warmaking powers, but the throughline of cultural transformation is less clear in the rest of the book, which shifts its focus to the atrocities and radicalisation of a revolutionary army sweeping across Europe. In a way, the somewhat ambling structure of the book reflects the decline of the aristoracy as the centre of the military story into just another level of the corps in an increasingly distinct military identity.

Saturday, May 28, 2022

REVIEW: The Glass Spare by Lauren DeStefano

Image from Goodreads
The Glass Spare bears all the hallmarks of its era (just past the midpoint of the 2010s YA fantasy): a vague fantastical world, a teen girl protagonist with a magical ability that jump starts the narrative, and a male love interest that becomes part of a generally flat love story. 

I don’t think it’s necessarily a bad book - these tropes wouldn’t be popular if they weren’t the perfect coat hanger for a multitude of tales. The thing is, tropes work when you do something interesting with them. For me, The Glass Spare almost reached that place, but sadly fell short. 

Saturday, May 14, 2022

REVIEW: Can War Be Eliminated? by Christopher Coker

Image from Wiley
Can War Be Eliminated? is a slim volume - an essay bound up in book form, really - and that very much dictates the tack it takes to answer its provocative titular question. It is a solid overview of what war is from an evolutionary, cultural, sociological, technological, and political perspective. However, its scope is necessarily limited by its size, which in turn negatively impacts its depth in favour of breadth. 

Nothing radically new was presented and I often found the persuasiveness and cogency of the arguments to have been hindered by their briefness, and in some areas also by their lack of thorough interrogation. For example, I very much appreciated his deconstruction of the “warrior ideal” and the role it has played and continues to play in our personal and cultural construction of what war means to us. However, I found some of the logic used to interpret data on women in the armed forces to be unconvincing, even if the broader argument it fit into made sense. This lack of cogency is likely owed in large part to the broad brush strokes with which he paints most of his examples. Given that my answer to the titular question was “no” before picking up the book, I do wish that there had been deeper interrogation, but I recognise that the text is limited by its length. 

Monday, February 21, 2022

REVIEW: Legends & Lattes by Travis Baldree

Image provided by the author
I drank so much coffee while reading this book and writing this review - which, if anything, speaks to its supreme ability to make me yearn not just to return to the joys of cafes, but specifically to one run by an orc and her motely crew of companions. It is genuinely one of the most comforting, easygoing books I've read in a long time. This is a  Goldilocks book - I was not stressed over turning the pages, nor laboriously chugging along through chapters to finish it, but just in the right place: enjoying and savouring each minute spent in this world.

Legends & Lattes busies itself with eternal questions but doesn't seek to answer them through a sweeping quest or high-flung political drama. It asks how you make a break with your past and forge a future, and how you learn to find contentment and security within that future, and it does so by putting our protagonist, Viv, in the role of a coffee shop entrepreneur.