Jim Reviews 5 Books on Soldiers & Warfare


The Wall Street Journal, May 27, 2006
For Memorial Day, a former Marine James Webb salutes these military books

onceaneagle1. Once an Eagle, Anton Myrer, Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1968

Quite simply, America’s “War and Peace.” “Once an Eagle” is the finest novel ever written about what it means to spend a career in the military, and how the military relates to the civilian world. Myrer traces the career and personal life of a talented, often selfless career soldier from the 1916 Pershing expedition along the Mexican border to the beginnings of the Vietnam War, skillfully blending in human foibles, political debates and the moral dilemmas that leaders always must face. A Marine veteran of Iwo Jima, Myrer writes with great skill about combat and with intelligence about a variety of societal and human issues.

 hellinsmallplace2. Hell In a Very Small Place, Bernard Fall, Lippincott, 1966 

For anyone who believes that France’s Dien Bien Phu operation in Vietnam in 1954 was little more than a blunder, and for anyone who believes that the French were not capable fighters in Vietnam, this comprehensive and often surprising non-fiction account of the siege that brought France to its knees will be a deserved surprise. Bernard Fall, the Frenchman who was the most perceptive observer of Vietnam’s shaky march away from French colonialism, wrote several books about Vietnam; he was killed while on a patrol with the U.S. Marines in 1966. This book — his best — shows us the under-appreciated complexities of that war, the regional issues that drove many local decisions and the tragic heroism of France’s finest fighting forces.

3. History of the Second World War, B.H. Liddell Hart, Putnam, 1970 

secondworldwarLiddell Hart is most remembered for his essays on strategy (he largely coined the doctrine of the “indirect approach”) and for his early advocacy of armored warfare in the years following World War I. It was an advocacy ignored by the British, studied and adapted by the Germans. But this book, which he was still working on at his death in 1970, is his masterpiece. Leaving politics behind, Hart gives us a splendid chronology of the war from a military context, which allows the reader to cover the entire global landscape of the war from beginning to end. The book’s only defect is Hart’s forgivable imbalance of attention paid to the European theater as opposed to Asia. Americans who have not read beyond our own military experiences in World War II emphatically need to read this book, in order to comprehend the ferocity of the German-Russian warfare, which is too frequently overlooked in our own discourse. 

forgottensoldier4. The Forgotten Soldier, Guy Sajer, Harper & Row, 1971 

This memoir from the perspective of one who fought on the German side in World War II is probably the most overwhelming book ever written about ground combat. Guy Sajer, an Alsatian drafted into the German Army, fought for three years as an infantry soldier, mostly on the Russian front. Germany fielded an army of 12 million soldiers and lost 3.7 million combat dead, a preponderance of those casualties occurring in the mind-boggling, massive engagements with the Soviets. Sajer, who had no politics and little enthusiasm for soldiering, nonetheless demands an understanding of the immensity of this human experience, and is the perfect voice to ask for it.

5. The Guns of August, Barbara W. Tuchman, Macmillan, 1962

gunsofaugustThis is the book that every policy maker pushing for the invasion of Iraq should have read, marked, learned from and digested before sending the U. S. off to war. Barbara Tuchman’s brilliant analysis of how World War I began in the summer of 1914 is remarkable not only for her understanding of the issues at play among national leaders, but also for her descriptions of how the trenches became immediately bogged down, resulting in a four-year war from which Europe has never fully recovered. The Germans were certain that World War I would be over in six weeks, but unforeseen circumstances and unintended consequences are the rule in warfare. Instead of a quick march to Paris, the summer of 1914 saw, horribly, several nations begin the process of bleeding and spending themselves away from greatness.