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Who Writes a Military Book?

ISSUE:  Spring 1941

Air Power, By Al Williams. New York: Coward-McCann. $3.50. Approach to Battle. By Leonard H. Nason. New York: Doubleday, Doran and Company. $1.50. The Armed Horde. By Hoffman Nickerson. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons. $3.50. Battle Shield of the Republic. By Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson. New York: The Macmillan Company. $1.50.

These are all bad books; let us so agree. They are shot through with prejudices, special pleadings, and distortions. Yet, before they are damned too irrevocably and pontifically, it is well to ask a question. It is a simple one: granted that these are the bad books, where are the good ones? And at this juncture your reviewer perforce stands mute. I don’t know a single modern military work which is at once expert, instinct with sincerity, pitched for the lay reader, and attractively written.

Perhaps that is a large order at a time when the military art is admittedly in a state of flux and controversy. Yet exponents of other professional and artistic callings meet the challenge of change and transience, not merely with equanimity but with elan, Think of the poets, painters, lawyers, and tycoons who write only the more magisterially and com-pellingly because they interpret change and insist on interpreting it according to their own lights. And who of us does not know a doctor who depicts triumphantly his prowess in removing some obscure, polysyllabic gland which, as the next generation of surgeons will prove, equally triumphantly, is the keystone of health and well-being? No, the canons of change and uncertainty will not stand up.

And here—or even before here—I should define what I mean by a military book. Obviously I am not talking about every book through which a soldier trails his pike or pilots his P-40. I even discard military memoirs or biographies, and do so all the more willingly for the purpose of this thesis because thereby I can exclude such brilliant works as “Marlborough” or “The Seven Pillars of Wisdom.” I think this position is well taken, since these books are concerned primarily with personalities; their subject is Man, and War enters into them only incidentally, even if profoundly.

I exclude, too, the technical treatises on the handling of small units, conduct of fire, orientation, topography, and the like. It is perfectly true that “Infantry in Battle,” published by our Infantry School, is exciting reading and that some of the new pamphlets pertaining to troop training carry enjoyment as well as profit to their possessors. But in the last analysis such publications are to the soldier what the sales manual is to the life insurance agent; they are for the military specialist rather than the general public.

And I exclude, too, those books the authors of which ride with one foot on the horse of war and the other on the steed of policy. “Mein Kampf” is, and “The Prince” would be equally and obviously, beyond the purview of this discussion. The only borderline case of which I know is Clausewitz’s “On War” and he, happily, has long since joined the classics and is read much more comfortably in his commentators.

The military book, then, is a work devoted to the broad aspects of war and of its preparation. Its bad exemplars are legion among us. For its good ones we have to look to the French of Foch’s “Principles of War” and of Ardant du Picq’s “Ancient Combat,” to the German of von der Goltz’s “Nation in Arms” and of von Seeckt’s “Thoughts of a Sol-dier.” In English we can look, but today we find—nothing.

Why is this? In the beginning I named expertness, sincerity, lay appeal, and style as criteria. Now style is endemic among us. This is an age in which every one writes well; and for once the military man has his own excellencies. True, he is afflicted with a rigid, sparse, and trade-conditioned vocabulary; nevertheless, the disciplined Anglo-Saxon idiom of official dealings tends to produce a clean-cut simple rhetoric which is not only effective but at the moment is actually in fashion. As a matter of fact, all of the books under discussion are well written. Hoffman Nickerson’s “The Armed Horde” in particular is full of beautifully presented argument and of eloquence. The failure of these and other books to come off is not attributable to lack of style.

Nor is it a matter of inability to reach the lay reader by keeping on too abstruse a plane. Most military books err in being written down, rather than in being written up. Writers, confronted with the stark and overwhelming simplicities of war, seem goaded toward oversimplification. Popular books on war tend uniformly to hang the whole military fabric on a single peg, be it the plane, the tank, some can-trap of theory, or the mere doltishness of high commanders. This need not be; in fact, oversimplification should be most readily avoidable by the writer who is also a professional soldier. After all, the essence of his trade is the teaching of it, in balanced form, to civilians. This whole question of pitch should present no real difficulties—nor does it.

And again, most military books are written, not for profit, but for reputation or in support of a thesis. They are generally instinct with thought and they are written by thinking men. When they resort to distortion or to special pleading it is usually from overanxiety to persuade the supposedly credulous layman. On the score of thought content and of sincerity most current military books stand high.

This brings us to expertness, and here, I think, we approach the nubbin of the problem. We must recognize that the development of military expertise is not only a matter of growth and flowering: the man of military authority, to remain such, must continue to keep himself qualified. Consider Napoleon. Here was a genius, a stylist, and a rabble-rouser. Yet when he sat down at Saint Helena to distill the essence of war he produced only a set of rubrics which explain why any battle was won, but not how to win one. From a military expert he had become a political symbol. And in our own generation there is Liddell Hart, whose lucid dissertations on war have pervaded the last two decades. Who can deny that the validity of his opinions has been in direct ratio to his physical nearness to battle? Who would exchange Pundit Liddell Hart of the Munich period for Staff Captain Liddell Hart in whose veins the guns of Flanders still thudded?

Or on the positive side, look again at Foch, von Seeckt, von der Goltz, and Ardant du Picq. Each of these wrote and spoke on the basis of a vast store of experience and accomplishment. But each did his work on the up-grade of his military career. Writing for them was a concomitant and a function of their jobs, a necessary step toward victory in wars yet dimly seen.

That is what I believe to be the answer. Great military books must be written by soldiers. They must be undertaken by those who know from practical experience and who have not yet forgotten. To obtain such books we shall have to wait until we can take the equivalents of J. E. B. Stuart from Second Manassas or Stonewall Jackson from Chancellorsville and impel them, as part of their duty, to record the thoughts that they have forged in vigilance, in uncertainty, and in the will to victory.


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