Friday, August 25, 2006

Books: Readin', Ritin'...

In 1997 Jared Diamond published a book entitled Guns, Germs, and Steel, in which he postulated that the denizens of an inhospitable corner of the Eurasian landmass conquered the world in the 17th-through-19th centuries because they had shiny rocks, some cows, got sick alot, and liked to pick on each other. Guilt-ridden cultural apologists felt his message resonate within their sunken chests and gave him a Pulitzer Prize for his efforts to expunge their collective angst-y guilt. Victor Davis Hanson, on the other hand, got ticked and decided to write a rebuttal...

I've been re-reading his Carnage and Culture: Landmark Battles in the Rise of Western Power over the last few days, and thoroughly enjoying myself. Hanson has a good grasp on what makes an army work, why it wins battles, and whether or not it can effect a successful peace at the end of war. His lucid analyses of battles ranging from Salamis through Tenochtitlan and Rorke's Drift to the Tet Offensive offer an incisive outlook on why, whenever Western armies have met foes from outside their culture in open battle, the long-term result has been annihilation of The Other.

Written before the events of 9/11/01 and the subsequent invasion of Iraq, he looks downright prescient in some passages, such as the following lines on the effect of the Tet offensive on the American home front:
In the context of identifying support for the war, the traditional rubrics "Republican" and "Democrat" began to mean little. Even the more rigid binaries "hawks" and "doves" often evolved to "fascists" and "communists," and ultimately "war criminals" and "traitors" - all reminiscent of Thucydides' gripping portrait of the stasis at Corcyra (Corfu; 427 B.C.) in the third book of his history. Consensual societies, Thucydides relates, when confronted with debilitating wars, steadily rip away the thin veneer of hard-won culture - civility, moderation, and honesty in expression becoming the predictable first casualties of extremism.

This is one of those books that goads me to work on my own two projects, both long-a'borning, and not just because of the similarity of the first one's topic to that of his opus:

An argument that ranged over two days with a houseguest some fifteen years ago planted the seeds in my noggin for the project that will hopefully someday bear fruit as Better Killing, Incorporated: (A Lighthearted Look Back At How Four Thousand Years Of Slaughter And Greed Have Made Life Better For You And Me.) This book covers some of the same territory as Mr. Hanson's, but doesn't have as militaristic a flavor overall. Well, more to the point, it's focussed on how nearly everything that makes modern human life worth living, from the keyboard I'm typing this on, to the internet it's being sent over, to the phosphor screen you're reading it on, has been brought about by an innately human desire to kill better and more cheaply.

The other book is the fault of Mr. Paul Scarlata. See, his Collecting Classic Bolt Action Military Rifles is such an excellent overview of the development of the military rifle from the adoption of the Lebel to the dawn of WWII that it just begs for a companion volume; one that runs from the adoption of the Dreyse in the late 1840s to just before the Lebel Revolution in 1886. Just as his book has chapters on straight-pull Mannlichers, Mosins, Mausers, and Enfields, so would this one have chapters on Martini-Henrys, Comblains, rolling-block Remingtons, and flop-top Springfields. The era itself is doubly interesting: a working title is The Age Of Rifles (stolen from an old computer wargame) due to the nature of warfare in the period. For this brief forty year interval, the rifle-armed infantryman was king of all he surveyed. There was no air force and no machine guns worth speaking of. Cavalry could be burned down as soon as they appeared on the horizon. Artillery, in the days before wireless communications, was limited to operations against line-of-sight targets, and a company of infantry could shoot the crew of a twelve-pounder to ribbons long before their horribly exposed, slow-firing artillery piece could do serious damage to the grunts. All-in-all I think it would be a fascinating period on which to write a collector's manual. There was a lot of innovation going on before Paul Mauser perfected the manually-operated infantry repeater. I wanted to find a good reference book on the guns of the period out there, and since none exists in the format I'm seeking, well, I'd best get to typing...

8 comments:

Zendo Deb said...

Sounds like a great book. I can't wait to read it.

The Left will go nuts of course.

Oleg said...

Tam,

Bring all the rifles you want pictured for the book and the corresponding ammo samples to the upcoming party. I never had a chance to do photos of the 11mm Mauser cartridges I sent you, for example.

B&N said...

Yes, get to cracking.

You already have a bunch of bookworm shotists reading your blog, a sure thing for sales of such a piece.

Can't wait.

-B

Art Eatman said...

Hey, war and conflict are indeed beneficial: Think about the advances in medical technology that came about as a result of mass injuries.

Oddities: The subject of my mother's doctoral dissertation was the learning processes of the blind. She had a consulting contract with the Army medical folks, during WW II, to help them set up a program. Braille, etc.

The entire modern concepts in computers came about from the Space Race with the USSR. We didn't have the payload capacity they did, so we worked at reducing size. That in turn led to more high-tech tools in medicine.

Another offshoot from the Space Race is Nomex. It was developed after the fire at the Cape, where Chaffee, White and Grissom died. Nomex has saved race car drivers and firemen alike...

And on and on and on...

trebor said...

I really want to read your book on those transitional rifle designs. Should we all place pre-orders to give you a nudge to get it started?

Sean said...

Oh, you *SO* need to write that book! I'd certainly buy one as well.

Sean said...

The second book idea, specifically.

Lloyd Flack said...

Diamond and Hansen answer different questions.

Diamond answers why Eurasia and Africa North of the Sahara developed civilization before other continents. Hansen answers why Western Europe developed a decisive military edge over the rest of Eurasia and North Africa.

For an explaination of why Western Europe not only developed a military edge but outpaced the rest in science, technology and economic efficiency the best book I've read is The Wealth and Poverty of Nations by David Landes.